Summer typically provides opportunities for youth and young adults to go on vacations, soak up the sun, spend time with family and friends, and have a break from school. In Mississippi, 19 youth and young adults with disabilities chose to make their summer a work learning experience instead. These students attended the ToTAL (Transition of Teens to Adult Life) 2020 Summer Enrichment Academy. The ToTAL Program is provided through the Institute for Disability (IDS), Mississippi's UCEDD, and receives funding from the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services. The 2020 academy was the third year for this annual event and the first-time the event was virtual.
The academy consisted of a general two-week training session followed by individualized seven-week educational internships. The two-weeks of virtual training were provided through the Zoom platform and consisted of live synchronous training combined with supplemental at-home assignments. Daily sessions included three hours of live Zoom training with two hours focused on at-home skill development. The internships were paid opportunities as the students earned a stipend equaling minimum wage for a total of 84 hours. Internships were individualized and catered to each student's career interests and dream job goals, which were confirmed through initial career and interest assessments during the two-week training. Career areas included food service, education, animal care, animation, transportation, graphic design, accounting, library services and many more.
For the first two years of the Summer Enrichment Academy, students participated in paid community-based internship experiences. This year, the internship experience was expanded to create an entirely unique and virtual alternative to adhere to restrictions and social distancing requirements associated with COVID-19. Students established a weekly work schedule and were assigned and completed at-home activities focused on job readiness skills, as well as their specific career interests. All activities were based on the students' interest areas and included virtual informational interviews with local, state and even national employees/employers. This afforded students the opportunity to interact with professionals in their chosen industry and ask questions regarding their desired career path.
Job Skills Trainers checked on the students daily and then as needed throughout their internships. "Assisting the students in my group learn more about themselves and their goals was extremely rewarding work. I enjoyed getting to know them as individuals, and the main focus of my job was to help them recognize their own strengths and give them tools to be able to use those strengths to begin their adult lives successfully. I have no doubt that they will be more hirable at the end of this experience," noted Job Skills Trainer, Sara Sorrell.
When asked about their experience in the 2020 Summer Enrichment Academy, brothers Caleb and Gabe stated, "Words cannot begin to describe the joy and excitement of this opportunity to participate in this program, which was supposed to meet in person at The University of Southern Mississippi. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the program met virtually, and this was an awesome experience. We met new friends as well as a lot of professional people, and we learned a lot of important tools and skills that will help us with reaching our goals in life. We say "hats off" to everyone that made this experience possible." Participant Jaden also stated, "This summer has been a GREAT experience that has given me the opportunity to take a more in depth approach, and get a better understanding, plus experience based on my future career goals. I am grateful for the trainers in helping me this summer. This program was created to enable all young people to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens."
For over 40 years, IDS has maintained its mission to "positively affect the lives of Mississippi citizens with developmental and other disabilities and their families across the lifespan and to work toward increasing their independence, productivity, and community inclusion." IDS concentrates its work in four emphasis areas: Early Childhood Inclusion and Education, Housing, Transition to Adulthood and Wellness. To learn more about IDS or the ToTAL program, visit www.usm.edu/ids
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