1:15 p.m., Nov. 19, 2010----The University of Delaware and Newark businesses offered 21 young adults with disabilities life-changing experiences and the chance to become integral members of the workforce. For these students, Delaware's second annual Disability Mentoring Day, held Oct. 20, was an opportunity to learn new skills and explore new fields of interest.
The event was organized by UD's Center for Disabilities Studies (CDS), through partnerships with the University and Newark business owners.
At the event's kick-off, Wendy Claiser, program coordinator for the TEEM Employment Initiative at CDS, reminded the participants that they are among thousands of students across the country who are celebrating Disability Mentoring Day. The annual event offers individuals with disabilities the opportunity to explore their roles in the workforce.
“We celebrate your talents, we celebrate your abilities, and we celebrate the opportunities each of you has to experience your dream jobs,” Claiser said. She asked the students to be “ambassadors” of the program as they engaged in their field work. She highlighted some of the high expectations that she and Max Kursh, job developer at CDS and co-organizer of Disability Mentoring Day, have for each of the students.
Among the students whose own expectations were met was Sarah Szewcyzk, who had expressed interest in working with UD's Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) department. She spent the morning with EHS's Kevin McSweeney and assisted with a fire safety and awareness session for residents of university-owned apartments. Szewcyzk participated in a live demonstration of fire extinguisher use, teaching students fire safety tips while learning about herself and her employment interests in the process.
Karla Carrio had dreamed of working in a food-related industry. Her experience at the Food Bank of Delaware was a perfect fit for her career goals. Carrio said she wants to pursue a certificate program in culinary arts and called Disability Mentoring Day the best day of her life.
The students heard from Newark Mayor Vance A. Funk III, who presented a proclamation officially declaring Oct. 20 as Disability Mentoring Day in Newark and told them about his personal connection with disabilities: He experienced a hemorrhagic stroke in March 1993 that destroyed the nerves on one side of his body.
“The doctors told my wife that I probably would not be able to talk or walk again, that my memory was gone,” Funk said. “They didn't realize that hearing that made me more determined.”
Funk expressed his pleasure at introducing the day's keynote speaker, Santino Ceccotti, a UD graduate and lawyer for the Delaware Public Defender's Office. Ceccotti pointed out that employers are beginning to recognize that true diversity includes people with disabilities, who are able to bring innovation and adaptability to the workforce and “become an asset to these employers.”
He called Disability Mentoring Day a testament to the future of individuals with disabilities entering the workforce.
“It's a competitive job market, but because we have to adapt, people with disabilities work harder,” Ceccotti said. “We may take a different route, it may take us a little longer, and we may have a different way to do it. But employers are starting to recognize that people with disabilities are an untapped market. Every one of you has an asset that employers are going to find, you can believe that.”
Some students who participated in this year's Disability Mentoring Day have already been recognized as valued employees and interns. Andrew “Drew” Netta, who has interned with the Grounds Services unit of UD Facilities, worked alongside site supervisor Paul Glenn as they organized and maintained the grounds of UD's Laird Campus.
Netta said the most important thing he has learned through his experiences is that you can never stop learning. “I'm always learning about new plants, trees, flowers,” he said, crediting his supervisor with building the sense of team, friendship and ongoing education among his coworkers.
“This is my team,” Netta said. “This is who I work with.”
Glenn said he believes the students have more to teach their supervisors than the other way around. “You think about what the students get out of it, but the mentors and supervisors get a lot out of it too. I think I get more out of it -- I go home and tell my friends and family all about what we did,” he said. “The biggest thing is when we get guys like Drew, who open up and really talk to you, that's how you know you hit home.”
UD students participated in Disability Mentoring Day as mentors for the young adults with disabilities at various work sites, including the Aetna Hose, Hook and Ladder Co. of Newark, Delaware Book Exchange, Pet Kare, Happy Harry's, Nucar Motors and Lums Pond Animal Hospital.
After completing their time at the job sites, the students gathered for lunch and to recap the successes of the day. CDS Director Beth Mineo addressed the participants, noting, “Every day that we learn something new about ourselves and other people is a successful day.”
Netta expressed his gratitude to CDS for allowing him to participate in the event for the second time and explained what a difference Disability Mentoring Day and TEEM have made in his life.
“With the help of CDS, I was able to get two paying jobs and I'm taking a theatre class, all from the help of the Center and the determination I found within myself,” Netta said. “If you ever have a dream for anything, don't ever give up on it. The number one thing I've learned through my experiences is to never give up on yourself.”
The Transition Education and Employment Model (TEEM) unit at the Center for Disabilities Studies uses a person-centered approach to offer people with disabilities a comprehensive set of services, supports and opportunities that will enable them to increase self-esteem, acquire life skills, develop effective communication and obtain vocational and job skills.
Article by Meredith Cooke, graduate assistant, Center for Disabilities Studies, and school psychology graduate student