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New MBUSD Choice Transition Program Helps Neurodiverse Students

Apr 21, 2016 09:30AM ● Published by DigMB Staff

At the MBUSD CHOICE Fundraiser and Mixer: From L to R: Carolyn Robb (VP Fundraising), Lisa Weaver (Volunteer), Michael Hudak (MB Parks & Rec), Kay Holliday (President CHOICE Booster Club), Idris Al-Oboudi (Manager MB Parks & Rec), Sonia Dickson (CHOICE Program Developer), Wayne Powell (MB City Councilmember), Lareina Rodriguez (CHOICE Instructor), Karl Rogers (President, Smashing Success), Mike Sullivan (Owner, LAcarGuy)

Gallery: MBUSD Choice Program [3 Images] Click any image to expand.

By Abby Hacohen

Kay and John Holliday were facing a dilemma.  Their 18-year old son was about to receive his certificate of completion from the Special Education program at Mira Costa, but as a young adult on the autism spectrum, he was not fully prepared to head off to college or enter the workforce.  

Anthony had come through Manhattan Beach Unified’s K-12 special education program, which helped him and his peers complete high school while learning valuable life skills.  But now the future of Anthony and his peers as adults loomed large.  There was no district transition program in place to help these differently-abled young adults learn to live and work in their community after high school. 

The Individuals With Disabilities Act (IDEA) guarantees special education and related services for students with diagnosed disabilities until age 22. From there, public school districts may provide transitional planning services or refer students elsewhere. There are county and national programs offering job training and placement, as well as advocacy organizations such as Autism Speaks, but these organizations are large, and reach far beyond the security and familiarity of one’s home community.

Now what? the Hollidays wondered. “We couldn’t solve this problem alone," said Kay Holliday. "We needed our local community to understand that Anthony is just one of a growing number of neurodiverse students in our school district who need a little extra help transitioning to adult life.”

Neurodiversity refers to a paradigm shift in the world of mental illness that seeks to reframe neurological disorders in terms of differences rather than deficits. These differences can include those with Autism Spectrum Disorder as well as Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Disorder and others.  The unemployment rate for neurodiverse adults is nearly 90%.

Together with other parents of special needs students, the Hollidays convinced the district that a program was needed to help the South Bay’s growing neurodiverse student population succeed in their transition goals.

The MBUSDCHOICE Transition Program was established in 2015 and is administered by a team of special education training staff, supervisors, and job coaches.  The program’s primary goal extends beyond job training. It seeks to connect CHOICE adult students with internships and paid employment right here within their home community.

To succeed, the program relies on reaching out to local businesses to provide that critical real-world work experience.

With fellow Manhattan Beach Pumpkin Race co-founder Karl Rogers, the Hollidays initially looked to their successful Pumpkin Race tradition to create work opportunities for the CHOICE Team in their newly formed company, Smashing Success. CHOICE Team members were invited to assemble and package the Pumpkin Race kits purchased by participants each year to transform pumpkins into creative axle-mounted racing machines. That got the wheels turning, both literally and figuratively.

The Hollidays and Rogers joined forces with MBUSD, the City of Manhattan Beach, the Downtown Manhattan Beach Business and Professionals Association, South Bay businesses, and parent volunteers to form the MBUSD CHOICE Booster Club to provide additional financial and human resources. With MBX booster clubs playing a critical role in enhancing sports, arts, and other programs at Mira Costa, they were surprised to learn their booster was the first ever established for a special education program in the history of MBUSD.  

CHOICE now partners with local South Bay businesses to create rotating 6-12 week internships for neurodiverse youths. Job placements are ideally 1-2 hours per day, 3 days per week. Many jobs from retail, food service & hospitality to office work, maintenance and landscaping are well-suited to the abilities and interests of this population: simple repeatable tasks such as cleaning, copying, stocking, data entry, local delivery, flyer distribution and more.

CHOICE instructor Lareina Rodriguez and her highly trained staff carefully match students with appropriate jobs based on the interests and abilities of each individual as well as the circumstances of each work environment. All placements are overseen by a CHOICE mentor who monitors progress weekly and addresses any concerns. Crew tasks and schedules are flexible and can adapt to meet the needs of employers and employees alike. 

The rotation structure helps participants diversify their vocational skills, which in turn prepares them for sustainable employment and fosters greater independence. Holliday points to the powerful effect these jobs have had on her son’s self-image and motivation. “Working has given him a tremendous sense of purpose and accomplishment.”

The benefits are equally profound for employers. MBUSD CHOICE Program Developer Sonia Dickson notes, “We come in and model how uncomplicated it really is to employ these young adults. Once they see how well-trained they are, it falls into place.”

The Zislis Group (Shade Hotel and Rock'n Fish), LAcarGuy and MB Parks & Recreation were early to partner with CHOICE, and are already providing local work opportunities. Local retailer Nikau Kai has also pledged to participate by hiring CHOICE participants to assist with inventory, unpacking and folding. 

LAcarGuy owner Mike Sullivan recounts how their involvement has strengthened the corporate culture.  “It makes our entire team feel good to provide real-world work experience to give these adult students the extra boost they need to succeed. “

The organizers now hope more local businesses will follow suit, and with luck, the list will continue to grow.  

Kay Holliday lauds the impact of this new program. “We are pioneers. We’re starting something unheard of before with our community, our local businesses, with individuals. We can do it. They can live and work and be a part of their own communities now.”

Dickson adds, “It’s wonderful to see the community opening not only their businesses, but also their hearts.” 

The MBUSD CHOICE Booster Club celebrated its launch Wednesday evening with a mixer and fundraiser at the Manhattan Beach Library.  Donations, including the purchase of sand candles and fresh produce packs assembled by the CHOICE Team of local neurodiverse youth, benefit MBUSD CHOICE Booster Club.

To learn more, make a tax-deductable donation, or purchase a fundraiser item assembled by the CHOICE Team, visit http://mbusdchoice.org/shop/

To include the CHOICE Team in your workplace as unpaid interns or paid employees, contact soniadickson@mbusd.org.

 

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