A new program is teaching some of Athens County’s most vulnerable youth valuable job skills.

The program, called Step Into Work, is through Personnel Plus, the Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities’ employment service. The goal is to give youth with developmental disabilities that have been deemed unemployable a chance to learn employment skills.

For two days a week for a month, lasting through Tuesday, Aug. 13, four participants gathered in the Market on State in Athens for an hour of classroom instruction followed by an hour of hands-on experience, for which the participants were paid. Each was paired with a trainer from the disabilities board to help the clients learn more effectively. During the classroom time, students were taught basic social skills, such as how to interpret bathroom signs and other skills many individuals take for granted.

Then, the students were given a chance to curate their job skills at the Market on State, where the students and their trainers go to clean various furniture in the mall, as well as the front doors. The Personnel Plus offices are located in the Market on East State, making it an easy arrangement.

“This program is supporting individuals who just a few years ago would be considered unemployable,” said the director of the program, Sue Orth. “It is our goal to challenge that notion and help these young people find meaningful work.”

Doug Mitchell, the disabilities board’s director of employment options, noted that often individuals with severe developmental disabilities are encouraged to attend day habilitation centers.

“Often there is more a menu of activities, and they’re not geared toward developing work skills with the goal of actually getting hired,” Mitchell said. “They (the participants) are quite young, and for many this was perhaps the first time they have been introduced to the concept of work.”

In 2012, then-Gov. John Kasich declared Ohio an “employment first” state, asking that students with developmental disabilities be presumed employable first. That means individuals such as the ones served by Step Into Work would not be immediately enrolled into day habilitation centers, as was the typical process in years past.

Mitchell said he’s found the program to be “very successful” but also “interesting,” noting that often there are basic actions assumed to be understood by everyone that are important growth steps for individuals with severe developmental disabilities. The majority of the students served by Step Into Work are nonverbal, and struggle with interpersonal interactions on top of learning societal norms and rules. That means these steps can’t be assumed, and the students need to learn to understand them on their own terms.

For example, one of the students in the program has washed tables at Beacon School for a while, using small circular motions. When tasked with cleaning items other than tables, he needed to learn a new method for wiping — long swipes.

“In his mind, (small, circular motions) are how he cleans everything,” Orth explained. “Now he has a new skill of cleaning other items. Small steps are really quite big steps for these folks.”

The program hasn’t been without its hitches — Orth and the trainers quickly discovered that not all of the individuals could work on the same task at the same time, as it became overwhelming for a few of the students. Instead, the four students were separated into groups of two, in addition to their associated trainers.

“So they weren’t by themselves and could practice some cooperating for teamwork,” Orth said. “This is just the beginning of a longer process of supporting individuals who need assistance in developing skills to work in the community.”

The participants are paid minimum wage for the work they complete during the program. Mitchell and Orth both said they believe the program to be worthwhile for the participants, stating they are proud of how much the students have learned.

“I feel they have caught on,” Mitchell said. “Maybe some can’t work the whole time, but when they are able to work they have put a lot of effort into it.”

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