BELTON—Eighteen-year-old Sean Morris loves working at a fast-food Tex-Mex restaurant—even if he doesn’t earn a paycheck.
Every Monday morning, before the first customers arrive, he helps arrange the chairs around the tables. He’s learned how to clean windows, wipe down counters, bag up fresh tortilla chips and wash dishes, although that is definitely not his favorite task. But what he really loves more than anything is making guacamole.
“My favorite thing is to work in the back and make guacamole. I like going home and making it for my family,” said Sean, who hopes to get a paying job in a restaurant someday.
Sean is part of the new University of Mary Hardin-Baylor Cru Work Skills program, which serves individuals 18 and older with diagnoses like autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, intellectual disability and learning disability.
Occupational therapy students help Cru Members
As an extension of the Cru Community Clinic, the work skills program was developed by the UMHB occupational therapy department to provide young people valuable skills to help them get jobs, said Amanda Frias, assistant professor.
“Our OT students provide adaptations, modify how activities are done or learned, identify needed supports to overcome barriers, and provide recommendations that can help these individuals be more successful in a paid job down the road,” Frias said.
The Cru Members who are part of the program work two- to three-hour shifts, engaging in typical work duties with other employees.
“As they gain new skills, they begin completing them more independently,” she said. “Each Cru Member has individualized goals based on their specific needs and what they are hoping to accomplish, which help to guide the activities.”
The new program provides occupational therapy students observation opportunities and will be used as an integral component of the second-year curriculum to help students gain hands-on experience and have a better understanding of community-based practice.
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Learning important skills
Occupational therapy students help Cru Members learn:
- Hard work skills, such as cleaning tables, washing dishes, prepping food and using the cash register.
- Soft work skills, such as communication, problem-solving, teamwork and understanding the structure of a work environment.
- Self-determination skills that help the individuals chart their own direction, such as being able to state their needs, asking for help, and understanding when and how to disclose their disability to an employer.
“Everyone coming into the Cru Work Skills program has different vocational goals. Some want to work with animals. Others want to work in the service industry,” Frias said. “Regardless, the soft work skills and self-determination skills are relevant across the board.”
Once students graduate from the program, they will be given a list of skills they achieved and any suitable accommodations that could be helpful in increasing success with a future employer.
Frias says her next step in developing the new program is to find local businesses willing to hire individuals with disabilities, so graduates of the program have direct access to employers.
“By developing these relationships with local businesses, we not only increase the employment rate of adults with disabilities, but also increase awareness in the general public of the reasonable accommodations that can be made,” she said.
Frias was thrilled when Sodexo, which provides food services on the UMHB campus, agreed to partner with occupational therapy to allow Cru Members to work at Moe’s Southwest Grill.
“They have been incredibly helpful to us and have made the Cru Members feel welcome and a part of the Moe’s team,” she said.
Bridging the gap between employers and future employees
Employers don’t always realize it, but individuals with disabilities often become outstanding employees, she added.
“They are often dedicated to their work, loyal to the employers, and they want to make a difference in their community,” Frias said. “These are excellent qualities in an employee, but the process for success may just look a little different. We hope to bridge that gap.”
Several Cru Members entered the Cru Work Skills program through the Belton Independent School District’s Delta 18+ program. However, Frias said, any adult in the community who has a disability can enroll in the program, which is free.
“Many people are aware of services and resources available for children with disabilities. However, there is much less available for people once they age out of the system,” Frias said. “The local community does have some resources for adults with disabilities, but we could always use more.”
First-year occupational therapy student Sherry Thomas said she enjoys the opportunity to work with real clients and seeing them progress with just a little help.
“The first time I saw Audra (Magre, age 19), she needed maximum assistance with a lot of different things like initiating the task and staying focused on the task,” Thomas said. “After three weeks, she made tons of progress. She was doing things on her own and initiating tasks. It feels awesome that we’re making an impact in someone else’s life.”
Working with clients this early in her occupational therapy studies will help her next year when she starts clinicals and will work with occupational therapy patients, Thomas said.
“This definitely makes me feel more comfortable and confident for when I will be seeing official patients as a practitioner,” she said.
Helping Cru Members understand their diagnosis
One of the tasks Cru Members must achieve is learning about their diagnosis and discovering how to ask an employer for assistance, Frias noted.
“In order to be successful, that is something we work on a lot, because some of the students don’t even know what their diagnosis is,” she said.
Nichole Fritz, a teacher in the Delta 18+ program, has enjoyed partnering with occupational therapy and having a place where her students can learn real-life work skills.
“My students are learning how to work for more than just an hour or two without needing a break,” she said. “A lot of them, at first, would only work 30 minutes, and then they would want to stop. That’s not going to work when they have a paid job. We’re teaching them to be aware of time, when their breaks are, and how to be self-starters when they go back to work.”
Since the Cru Work Skills program began this past August, Frias said, it is going well, and she sees the potential for future growth.
“I’m excited to be helping these students develop brand new skills that will hopefully develop into paid employment,” she said. “Working and contributing to my community is a major part of my identity and brings me joy. Everyone deserves that opportunity, and I’m happy to contribute to that.”