School to work programs offer students and businesses diverse opportunities to get acquainted. But for handicapped students, such chances to explore and develop career options are particularly crucial.
That fact was highlighted Thursday, when the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Work Experience Program held a luncheon at Kenai Central High School with the theme "Bridging the Gap."
When a parent learns their toddler has a disability, often their thoughts leap ahead to high school graduation. Families fear their children will have difficulty taking care of themselves as independent adults, said Joy Harper, a special services assistant and the parent of an autistic child.
"It is a very scary transition," she told the assembled group of students, educators and participating business representatives.
The guests and school participants enjoyed a fine lunch prepared and served by students from the culinary arts class. Megon Coon, Kylie Kissee, Roxanna Wilcox and Elena Bird sang "The Star Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America."
The keynote speaker at the luncheon was Jim Brady from the Independent Living Center.
"Even in almost 2002, the general population has a fear of the disabled," he said.
During the economic boom of the 1990s, the unemployment rate for the handicapped remained at about 75 percent, a figure he called "shamefully high." Studies have found numerous barriers to attaining self-sufficiency, he said.
But Brady praised recent federal and state programs as truly progressive and outlined how they can facilitate the schools' work experience program.
"Some of the programs can directly impact students in the transition phase," he said.
"These programs work for everybody."
The Peninsula Job Center is a resource providing diverse information and assistance consolidated in one site. New Medicaid rules allow the handicapped to keep insurance benefits as they move into earning income. And other programs offer transportation, tax incentives and awareness training, he said.
Perceptions are slowly changing from what the disabled cannot do to a focus on what their can do, he said.
"We can all work -- or most of us can work," he said. "... You are always better off if you are working."
Luncheon organizer Lisa Bote-Phillips, assistant coordinator of the special education work program, said career development projects sometimes overlook the disabled. But the district's program and cooperation from the community are moving to address the needs.
In addition to KCHS, Nikiski, Soldotna and Skyview high schools are participating. The district already has hundreds of students involved and is eager to get the word out to businesses about the opportunities to mentor young people, Bote-Phillips said.
"We hope this is the beginning of bridging the gap and providing more opportunities," she said.
The program gives students a safe place to learn and practice life skills and to develop self-confidence, she said.
Her son William Harper, a KCHS senior, spoke about his experiences working at Kenai Peninsula College as an assistant to art professor Gary Freeburg, sorting his slides. The apprenticeship has helped him appreciate photography more, and he is taking an art class at the campus.
"There is hope," he told the group.
"There is hope we will find ways to make this program work as a bridge between school and society."
Roy Anderson, the district's director of pupil services, reminded businesses that helping the students yields tangible benefits for them, as well.
"It's also good for business. There is a lot of talent and skill," he said.
"They will help you make money."
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