During Meeting of the Minds, a Newark Senior Center program for those with early stages of memory impairment, Catherine Lin brings a spark of energy to the participants’ afternoon.
“She loved being over there. Everybody loved having her over there,” said Jessica Fineberg, development director at the senior center. “We decided to have her go over there a couple afternoons a week because in the afternoon over there, everybody’s eating lunch and they’re kind of in that lull, and she actually would go over and kind of re-energize everybody.”
Lin, 26, was hired to work at Newark Senior Center after a semester of interning there while enrolled in the Career and Life Studies Certificate program at the University of Delaware’s Center for Disabilities Studies. As part of the program, students with intellectual disabilities attend UD for two years, taking courses, joining clubs, participating in internship opportunities and living on campus.
“Our program is very person-centered, so anything that the students are doing is what they are interested in doing,” said James Sellers, program manager for CLSC. “They can choose courses based on their interests, they can join clubs or whatever based on their interests. And then for the internship part, we base that on their career interests so that we develop customized internships in the field that they want to be in, in the future.”
The students intern for three semesters. In the spring semester of their first year, they work for four hours per week. The following year, the students intern between 10 and 15 hours per week. Students have the ability to reflect on the work they’re doing and pursue other opportunities or stick with the same internship.
“One of the things that sort of happens in general with disability programs is that there’s this cliff at the end of each program of like, ‘What’s next?’” Sellers explained. “It can take a few months to figure out what’s next. And so we try to limit that.”
The program has students go through more job development, so by the time they are graduating, they either have a job or are close to getting a job.
Sellers said that their placement rate within three months of program completion overall is 85 percent. Last year, it was 100 percent.
Sellers said CLSC begins the job development process with students and representatives from the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation during the winter session of their second year, so they can begin looking for jobs.
“Our main goal is for students to develop independent living skills. That includes advocacy skills, social skills and employment skills. And we want it to be based on the interests that the students have, so that they can have some self determination,” he said, noting that customization is what makes the program unique.
“But also, being on a college campus, our students are with other students of their age also figuring out what they want to do with their life. Everybody’s going through that same transition process,” he continued. “Our students have a little more support.”
Donna Hopkins, a certified employment specialist for St. John’s Community Services, works with the students in their second year of the program, supporting them in their internship.
As the students get more comfortable, the CLSC and Hopkins’ presence fades away so the student can work more independently.
Hopkins noted that she spent the beginning of Lin’s internship with her, sitting through the entire shift. Lin would defer to Hopkins to speak for her.
“But now, since I work here, she stays for a little bit and then leaves because she understands that I know what I’m doing,” Lin said.
Though Lin didn’t have a job lined up when she graduated from the CLSC program last year, she wanted to keep busy. She continued her work with the senior center as a volunteer. Throughout the summer, beyond the Meeting of the Minds, Lin helped with data entry and the Meals on Wheels program.
“Then at that point, I kind of said to Carla [Grygiel, executive director], ‘You know, Catherine is doing a lot, she’s looking for a job. Do you think we could hire her on part time because she’s really filling in a lot of different areas now?’” Fineberg recalled.
She told Hopkins they were going to offer Lin the position. When Lin met with Hopkins and Fineberg to hear the news, she was excited, Hopkins recalled.
“It was just one of those moments,” Hopkins said. “It’s the joy that these kids get from being a part of something and being recognized for that.”
Hopkins noted it’s “remarkable to see her” now.
“She has transformed from a very shy young lady into a very outgoing young woman,” she said.
Lin is only one of about 24 students who matriculate through the CLSC during the year.
Lin and two other students have recently been hired on by the programs they interned with.
Mike Massello, 20, was hired by the Newark Public Works Department after spending the day with the team during a disability mentoring day.
Working with Rob Conrad, Massello assists with catch basin maintenance, sign installation, construction and trash duties throughout the city of Newark.
“When I started in UD, I wanted to get involved with transportation because of the big equipment and vehicles,” he said. “I job shadowed at the bus depot and got to tour how the buses are set up.”
Massello said that he enjoys working for the city.
“I get to be active and part of a team,” he said. “We do whatever we’ve got to do and work hard to resolve problems.”
He said moving into a paid position was a seamless transition.
“It’s been a huge success, and I’ve grown a lot,” he said. “I’ve done quite a lot and I’m not afraid to help out, to get out of the truck. I’m here to work, not just to watch.”
Hopkins said she has been thrilled with the mentoring that has taken place in public works.
“I think it’s phenomenal that the city of Newark has opened its doors,” she said.
Dan Zebley, public works supervisor, said that Massello brings a lot of energy to the team and has helped improve morale.
“We’ve talked a lot about what Mike has learned, but I’ve learned things, the guys have learned things,” he said. “As an employer, it’s a beneficial thing.”
Bill Sullivan, managing director for the Courtyard by Marriott hotel on UD’s campus, felt similarly about Ian Snitch joining the team.
“Ian has been very special,” he said. “He fits in very well. He’s incredibly polite and professional. He’s an asset. Every one of our staff feels that energy.”
For Snitch, 20, being a part of the Marriott team is exciting, especially as someone who dreamed of being a bellhop.
“I always wanted to be one ever since since I was a little kid,” he said. “Anything can happen, any lifelong dream.”
Snitch works in housekeeping, assisting in the lobby areas so that he can socialize with guests and other student interns. He also helps with maintenance.
“Ian has always been dependable and reliable, but he’s just excelled,” Hopkins said. “He’s grown, he’s matured. He has decided that this is something that he has wanted from the beginning and he has worked hard – very, very hard – to achieve it.”
Hopkins said that inclusion is important for the workplace, and that the students who have gone on to get jobs are ambassadors in the community. So are the employers, she said.
“Not only did they open their doors to the students for internships, but now they’re being offered jobs. And if we had more employers who were willing to open doors to be inclusive, they would be rewarded, and so would the students. It’s just like this perfect storm of a win-win,” she said.