Do you remember your first job out of high school? And how proud you were to have grownup responsibilities, not to mention your own paycheck? Shane, a 19-year-old young man on the autism spectrum, feels that way and more after successfully completing his first three months of work at a local fast food restaurant. A year ago, after completing high school, neither Shane nor his family had any idea what the future held for him. It was through a referral to Cunningham's Vocational Options program that he not only found employment, but support and hope as well.
At Cunningham, we have years of experience helping kids from our therapeutic schools transition to adulthood. It's only been in the last 18 months that we've been able to share this expertise with young adults in the community, like Shane, whose cognitive, developmental, and behavioral challenges prevent them from finding and keeping productive jobs. Grants through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WOIA) and the Department of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) have expanded our scope and now fund our vocational education services for adults between the ages of 18-40 who face significant barriers to employment. These individuals are referred to us from public schools and social service agencies throughout East Central Illinois.
In helping Shane succeed, Vocational Options has literally gone the extra mile. In addition to offering work readiness training, counseling, and job placement services, our staff helped Shane out in a pinch when family problems left him without a way to get to work. "I guess I'm going to have to quit," he said. "I live 15 miles away." His Options staff, Kyle, didn't accept that as an option. He picked him up, drove him to work, and helped him develop a plan with his employer to solve his transportation problem.
"It's rare that there's only one obstacle our kids must overcome," Mary, the Options Coordinator explained. "We have to address other factors that challenge them like low income, social isolation, and emotional distress. We're fortunate to be working with some amazing businesses in the community that really understand and support our kids and what we do at Cunningham."
Vocational Options has a lot to celebrate! Shane joins 91 other young people who in the last six months have celebrated successful job placements of 90 days or more—a stunning achievement for those previously considered unemployable. Thirty-eight of these young adults received services from Cunningham for the first time and came to us through community referrals. Now, step by step, and helped by an intentional web of professional and community support, they are building sustainable careers in hospitality, retail, office support, animal care, manufacturing, health care, and food service. And reminding us that success and hope can be measured in many different ways.