Program helps young adults with disabilities become more independent

Jan 23, 2014

Jennifer Williams working in the KVCC Food Services kitchen
Credit Nancy Camden

 CORRECTION: The original story called the featured organization the Kalamazoo Regional Education Service Agency. The correct name is the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency.

For young adults with disabilities, finding a career path after high school can be difficult. Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency facilitates the transition from student to employed worker.

Jennifer Williams is a paid employee in the food services kitchen at Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC). She is 24 years old and has Down syndrome, a genetic disability.

Before Williams could apply for the job, she went through a two-year young adult program with Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency (KRESA.)

“The young adult program has students 18 to 26 years old who all have a disability," says Pricipal Deb Wild. "They’ve completed their four years of high school. Some have earned a diploma and some haven’t. But, now it’s time to get down to the real world for these students leaving the school setting as they know it and entering into adult life.”

'She absolutely loves her job. People with disabilities make amazing workers because they want to work. They want to get up and go somewhere every day'

KRESA provides an on-site work coach at the various work sites. Linda Raymond coaches three students in the KVCC kitchen where they are learning kitchen skills as well as social skills.

Their disabilities may range from a person with a cognitive impairment, learning disability, autism spectrum or emotional impairment.

“A disability isn’t who they are,” says Connie Laurinat, Work Coordinator for KRESA. "Like anybody else, we have things that we are really good at and other things that we’re not so good at. And, everyone is always endeavoring to improve who they are and in what they are doing.”

“She gets her paycheck and brings it home and is so excited,” says William's mother, Laura Williams.

“We wanted her, even as a person with a disability, to pull her own weight, if she could. She absolutely loves her job. People with disabilities make amazing workers because they want to work. They want to get up and go somewhere every day.”

Williams has learned to live independently. KRESA works with students in daily life skills as well, such as taking public transportation, grocery shopping, managing money and buying clothes. Robin Friel-Pierce, Food Service Director for Aramark, the food service at KVCC says she and her staff have learned from William's cheerful attitude and good work ethic.

“These are members of our community who are not designed to live separate lives,” says Wild, “but to be part of our lives and enriching our lives in ways that really nobody else can.”

When asked about what she loves about her job, Jennifer enthusiastically says, “Everything.”