News & Media

Work immersion program a winning venture for everyone

10/12/2018 Lancaster Online By THE LNP EDITORIAL BOARD

Preparing students for the 21st-century workforce requires the participation of the private sector, the government and, of course, our high schools and colleges.

Basically, it’s all hands on deck.

And in filling these jobs, no population should be overlooked or left behind — including those with special needs.

Learning a skill that leads to employment produces so many benefits — more independence (financial and otherwise), a feeling of worth and a sense of responsibility.

Many of the positives can’t be tangibly measured, but they’re very real just the same.

So we applaud the IU13 work immersion programs and the difference they’re making in the lives of their graduates, and their contributions to the local economy.

Take Montel Walton Clements. A high school dropout at 15, he was using and dealing drugs and hanging out with a bad crowd. Today, at 21, he’s graduated from Solanco High School and makes $12 an hour at a local warehouse job.

Clements is a graduate of the IU13 initiative. “I never learned from my mistakes until I got older,” he told Geli. “I never had the support that I needed.”

The internships in the work immersion programs include hands-on training and classroom sessions focused on skills related to the job and independent living; they follow the same schedule as the typical academic year, Geli reported. Students go through a competitive application and interview process.

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

The three Lancaster County sites for the IU13 programs are Willow Valley Communities, Lancaster General Health and Lancaster County Career & Technology Center’s Brownstown campus.

All three locations have at least one teacher and generally two job trainers.  

In IU13’s materials handling and logistics transition program at the career and technology center, students receive forklift training and certification, CPR certification and Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety training.

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

Guatta told Geli that IU13 intentionally chose opportunities in hospitality and manufacturing, two of the fields in Lancaster County most in need of workers.

“Drive anywhere around the community, and you see ‘Help Wanted’ signs,” Cathy Rychalsky, executive director of the Workforce Development Board, told LNP. “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.

“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.”

The results speak for themselves.

Guatta said that 87 percent of the students in IU13’s secondary transition programs, including work immersion and school-to-work, found a job by the time they graduated. Those occupations included patient care assistant, food service worker and warehouse package handler.

IU13 tracks students from the programs at LG Health and the career and tech center for 90 days after graduation, Geli reported, and all students tracked last year retained employment during those three months.

Hempfield High School senior Jose Tirado is in the LG Health work immersion program, interning in the food services department.

He told Geli that his aim involves more hands-on interaction with patients. “I really want to be a patient care assistant and help people out.”

Clements, who was recently hired at the LabLearner warehouse in Burle Business Park on New Holland Avenue, completed the materials handling and logistics program after he returned to school. He told LNP that his warehouse job is a significant upgrade from his previous job at a fast food restaurant — and not just in pay.

Managers at his former place of business didn’t consider his physical limitations, Clements said. But the situation at LabLearner is much different.

“It’s a wonderful company,” he told Geli. “They’re very polite.”

Clements has sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease in which 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.

But despite that, and thanks to IU13 and his own hard work, Clements is on a vocational path he enjoys.

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

Clements is one of the IU13’s success stories, and Tirado is on his way there. IU13 should be commended. Its work immersion programs have a proven track record; it's essential that all organizations involved in this program make sure that it has the resources to continue — and even expand on — this success.

We also applaud the employers willing to take a chance on young people whose route to the workforce might include more fits and starts than others. No one is expendable — in our economy or our community.

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