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IU13 work immersion programs place students with special needs into in-demand jobs

10/07/2018 Lancaster Online By Alex Geli

Montel Walton Clements is a changed young man.

A high school dropout at age 15, Clements was using and dealing drugs and hanging around the wrong crowd.

Now 21, he’s stopped using and dealing drugs, graduated from high school and makes $12 an hour at a local warehouse job — far better than his prior job at a local fast food restaurant that paid just above minimum wage.

And, Clements said, it’s all because someone took a chance on him.

“I never learned from my mistakes until I got older,” Clements said. “I never had the support that I needed.”

The Solanco graduate is one of the many success stories from the work immersion programs offered by the Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13.

The work immersion programs serve 25 students in Lancaster County. IU13 accepts high school seniors with special needs and enters them into yearlong unpaid internships.

The internships, which include hands-on job training and classroom sessions focused on skills related to the job and independent living, follow the same schedule as the typical academic year and essentially replace senior year for participating students.

Students go through a competitive application and interview process. The applicants who are chosen are usually hired in some of the most high-priority positions in the county by the time they graduate.

“We really need to look at preparing these students to fill any voids that we have within the county,” said Gina Guatta, IU13’s supervisor for early childhood and special education services.

IU13 offers programs in three locations in the county: Willow Valley Communities, Lancaster General Health and the Lancaster County Career & Technology Center’s Brownstown campus.

Each location has at least one teacher and about two job trainers on-site.

The LG Health internship began in 2008 and was the first offered by IU13 in a partnership with the Cincinnati-based Project SEARCH.

The organization started in 1996 at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, where it secured competitive employment for people with disabilities.

At the career and tech center is IU13’s materials handling and logistics transition program, in which students receive forklift training and certification, CPR certification and Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety training.

“We can’t be afraid of people who are a little different. In fact, we should be welcoming them into the workforce just like we do anybody else.”

Guatta, who sits on the Lancaster County Workforce Development Board youth council, said IU13 consciously chose opportunities in two of the county’s most highly sought-after areas: hospitality and manufacturing.

“Drive anywhere around the community, and you see ‘Help Wanted’ signs,” said Cathy Rychalsky, executive director of the Workforce Development Board. “While there are some areas that you might need a little bit more structure or supervision, there are so many skills, both soft and hard, that somebody with a disability can bring.”

Rychalsky added: “We can’t be afraid of people who are a little different. In fact, we should be welcoming them into the workforce just like we do anybody else.”

Apparently companies are, thanks to IU13.

Eighty-seven percent of the students in IU13’s secondary transition programs, which include work immersion and school-to-work, landed a job by the time they graduated, Guatta said.

Some of those jobs include patient care assistants, food service workers and warehouse package handlers.

Hoping to be hired next year is Hempfield senior Jose Tirado.

Currently, he interns in the food services department at LG Health, which he said has helped him open up, but his ultimate goal is to work more closely with patients.

“I really want to be a patient care assistant and help people out,” he said.

IU13 currently tracks students from the programs at LG Health and the career and tech center for 90 days after graduation. All students tracked last year retained employment during that time.

One of those students was Clements, who was recently hired at the LabLearner warehouse in Burle Business Park on New Holland Avenue.

Clements completed the materials handling and logistics program after he returned to school — this time at Community School Southeast, an alternative school offered by IU13.

His warehouse job is a substantial upgrade from his previous job at the fast food restaurant, he said.

Managers there, Clements said, didn’t consider his physical limitations.

Clements has sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease where the immune system goes into overdrive, causing pain and irritation in the lungs, lymph nodes, eyes and skin. It is easy for him to get sick.

Although he was only diagnosed last year, Clements has had symptoms since he was 17.

The work environment at LabLearner, however, is completely different, he said.

“It’s a wonderful company,” Clements said. “They’re very polite.”

Thanks to IU13 giving him a chance — along with some hard work — Clements is on track toward a rewarding, sustainable career, he said.

“When you’re ready to buckle down,” he said, “that’s when things will start turning around.”

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