Center for Disabilities Studies hosts Delaware's first Disability Mentoring Day
Laura Lemon worked with the volunteers at the Aetna Hose, Hook and Ladder Co. during Disability Mentoring Day.
Andrew Gilsdorf serves up a treat at Cold Stone Creamery as mentor Lauren Blakeley, left, a UD sophomore, and owner Lisa Kopolovic assist. Photo by Ambre Alexander
Vamshi Patachala, right, participates in Disability Mentoring Day at the Delaware Book Exchange. With him are Bill Dill, manager of the Delaware Book Exchange, and mentor Rachel McCulley, a UD junior. Photo by Ambre Alexander


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9:14 a.m., Oct. 26, 2009----When Wendy Claiser, employment program director at the Center for Disabilities Studies (CDS), welcomed 23 young adults to the University of Delaware's first Disability Mentoring Day on Oct. 14, she told them this might be the day that they find the job of their dreams.

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Just a few hours later, it appeared that Grant Hill's dreams were coming true at Pet Kare in Pencader Plaza in Newark. After cleaning cages, changing litter boxes and feeding fish, guinea pigs, hamsters and kittens, Hill was reluctant to leave the shop where he had been shadowing employees to learn about animal care jobs.

“It was really awesome to see how comfortable Grant was working with the animals,” said his mentor, Natalie Bizzarro, a school psychology major and graduate assistant at CDS. “The experience totally opened him up -- there was an obvious transformation in him because he was so happy to be there the whole time.”

Bizzarro noted that Hill has been working at another job for quite awhile, “but I truly think that he found his calling today while working at the pet store.”

Disability Mentoring Day, part of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, is celebrated annually across the nation. It offers individuals with disabilities the opportunity for a hands-on experience at a job that aligns with their interests.

Delaware's Disability Mentoring Day event was coordinated by Claiser and job developer Max Kursh, who developed partnerships with UD departments and Newark businesses.

Claiser and Kursh are both part of the Swank Employment Initiative at CDS. The Swank Initiative is funded by a $1 million grant from the Howard W. Swank, Alma K. Swank, and Richard Kemper Swank Foundation. This and other CDS employment initiatives utilize a person-centered approach to working with people with disabilities -- skill development and internships are based on the interests of each participant.

Speaking to the Disability Mentoring Day participants, mentors, potential employers, and others at the kick-off breakfast, UD College of Education and Public Policy Dean Michael Gamel-McCormick emphasized that “employment is the answer.”

He said that employment is how we identify ourselves, it's what makes us part of society, and it opens the door to everything else. “But no one gets where they are without some assistance,” he added, pointing to the need for mentoring and charging everyone to be mentors. “We have a responsibility to give back.”

While Disability Mentoring Day participants were trying out jobs, employers were learning about the importance of assisting people with disabilities in their efforts to become employed. Already on board with the Swank Initiative is Bill Sullivan, managing director at the Marriott Courtyard Newark-University of Delaware hotel on campus, which hosted and sponsored the breakfast and is providing internships for two program participants.

“Bill is helping people with disabilities make connections,” Gamel-McCormick pointed out. He thanked Sullivan and all the employers for their willingness to open doors and make opportunities for people with disabilities.

Some participating employers have a personal connection to disabilities. Before reading a proclamation declaring Oct. 14 as Disability Mentoring Day in Newark, Mayor Vance A. Funk III told participants that a broken blood vessel in his brain in March 1993 left him without the ability to talk or walk.

“All of a sudden, I couldn't do anything. I had to rely on everyone around to teach me everything. They gave me the energy and skills to help me go back to work,” Funk said. Michael Gallagher had the opportunity to shadow Funk in his capacity as a lawyer at his Main Street office.

Paula Talarowski, who uses a wheelchair and does clerical work at CDS several hours a week, was shadowed by a Disability Mentoring Day participant. “I really enjoyed showing and explaining to her what my job duties are,” Talarowski said. “It was great to see her do some of the jobs that I do and how proud she was to help me fold letters, stuff envelopes, and deliver some flyers.”

Other UD partners in Disability Mentoring Day were the Carpenter Sports Building, Cooperative Extension, the Early Learning Center, Environmental Health and Safety, Facilities, UD Mentors, the Motor Pool, the Registrar's Office, and REP/PTTP and the theater box office.

Newark business partners were Cold Stone Creamery, the Marriott Courtyard Newark-University of Delaware, Delaware Book Exchange, Aetna Hose, Hook and Ladder Company, Nucar Motors, Pet Kare, Seasons Pizza, and the law offices of Vance A. Funk III.

Article by Michele Sands