Young adults with disabilities learning tools for the real world at Dorney Park
Morning Call - 4/17/2017
April 17--There was a time that Diane Hyzinski wondered if a certain teenage right of passage -- the summer job -- would ever be within her daughter's reach.
Holly Hyzinski is quiet and shy, but her quick, searching eyes probe the world around her. The 19-year-old's mother worried that her daughter's life on the autism spectrum may have permanently closed doors open to others.
"It's very scary trying to figure it all out on your own," Diane Hyzinski said of parenting a special needs child. "When you first start out, you just don't know what you'll find."
But when Holly was 14, the Hyzinskis learned about the Lehigh Valley Center for Independent Living, and a world that seemed locked suddenly opened. Through networking, programs and job coaching with the agency, Holly took her own initiative last fall to apply for and snag seasonal work at the Dorney Park Halloween Haunt. This summer, she's training for her place on the South Whitehall amusement park's aquatics team.
"The services don't come to look for you as a parent, you have to look for them," Hyzinski said Friday, seated at her dining room table in North Whitehall Township. "LVCIL became just a hub of information that could help us find these other programs. It makes it all a little less scary."
Real World Lehigh Valley, a 6-week summer program run by the Center for Independent Living'sSchool-2-Life group, aims to help other families discover what the Hyzinskis did -- the transition from school and adulthood for those with disabilities doesn't need to be so intimidating.
This will be the first year the 8-year-old program will be hosted by one of the region's popular employers for young adults: Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom, according to Seth Hoderewski, director of organization's transition services. Hoderewski said park staff spoke to attendees last year, inspiring Holly, who was among the participants, to apply for a job. He said that spurred the organization to explore a larger partnership with the theme park.
The new partnership is taking root during a nationwide push for greater concentration on the fragile transition period. Hoderewski plans to tout the public-private collaborative effort during conferences this spring.
"We want to get to the point where people really don't need us -- where they can do things on their own," he said. "These young adults have the same wishes, dreams and desires as everyone else. They don't want to sit at home and do nothing."
Real World Lehigh Valley has grown and is being made possible through funding by the Office for Vocational Rehabilitation. The agency has taken on a greater role in transition services since the 2014 enactment of the Workforce Innovation Opportunities Act.
The legislation and its funding pool allow for earlier intervention, training and support for young adults to smooth the passage from a school support system to those required in adulthood, according to Susan Storm, a district administrator with the Office for Vocational Rehabilitation.
The bulk of the agency's work pertains to adults with disabilities. OVR saved Pennsylvania an estimated $54 million in 2015 by helping to put to work about 70,000 people with disabilities statewide.
For young people, the chance to find a job in adulthood has a lot to do with school-age experiences.
"The number one predictor of a young adult getting paid work when they're out school are those type of experiences they get while they're in school," Hoderewski said.
Dorney Park has long been an employer of individuals with special needs, but the theme park grabbed headlines last year when an interview process shift meant a long-time seasonal worker with special needs was denied a job. The social media outpouring was passionate and swift and the park quickly extended a job offer to 29-year-old Chris Emery, but his mother said he was no longer interested.
Hoderewski said LVCIL began working with Dorney right before the firestorm and was called on to help afterward. He said he believes the park would have been interested in the partnership even without the scrutiny, but noted that the company's willingness to embrace a learning opportunity spoke volumes.
"I think Dorney was able to take a not-so-good situation and turn it around into something that can make a positive impact in the Lehigh Valley for years to come," Hoderewski said.
Real World Lehigh Valley
What: A six-week summer job training program
For who: 16 qualified young adults with disabilities between ages 16 and 21
When: July 10 -- Aug. 14
Where: Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom
How: To apply for a spot in the summer program, visit www.lvcil.org.
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