IDS Holds Summer Academy for Youth and Young Adults with Disabilities

By: Bryant "Tyler" Johnson

While some students may be enjoying their time off from school by going on vacation or to summer camps or just doing nothing, a group of youth and young adults with disabilities chose to spend this summer preparing for future employment opportunities by participating in a unique summer learning experience.

Since 2018, the Institute for Disability Studies (IDS) at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) has provided youth and young adults with a summer multi-week training and internship experience through its Transition of Teens to Adult Life (ToTAL) Program. The 2023 Summer Academy was the sixth year for this annual training event and the fourth year that a virtual option was included.

This year’s Academy was themed after the Harry Potter franchise, with participants “competing” to earn points for their respective “House” (team). Each year’s Academy has a themed training curriculum to promote increased engagement among the participants.

Jaden, a first-time student in the Academy, said, “My favorite part of training was that it was related to Harry Potter.”

During this past June, a total of 29 young people from the Pine Belt, Gulf Coast and throughout the state participated in this year’s Academy. Students had the option to attend in-person training at the Hattiesburg campus of USM or the Gulf Coast campus in Long Beach. The other option was a virtual experience for those students who were unable to attend either of the campuses.

The Academy consisted of an initial two-week training session followed by six weeks of individualized work-based learning experiences. Internships were provided based on available opportunities in students’ local areas and with virtual options for those under age 16 or not able to participate in-person. 

This year’s Academy was again led by Beth Robertson, Transition Coordinator, who provided oversight for all virtual aspects of the program. 

“Our annual summer program and internships provide students the opportunity to acquire essential workplace readiness skills, setting them on a trajectory toward success,” said Robertson. “The remarkable growth in skills and confidence displayed by this year's students, as they actively learn and apply their knowledge in their chosen career fields, showcases their impressive journey toward a bright and promising employment future."

The Academy is student-driven and focused with student input sought throughout the event. The setting is intended to be student and learning friendly as well.

Joanie, a second-time student noted “I was able to focus better this year. [The Academy is a] nice and comfortable environment to ask questions… you’re allowed [to ask] as many questions as you need.”

Plans are already underway for the 2024 Summer Enrichment Academy.  The Academy and all ToTAL program activities are considered pre-employment transition services (Pre-ETS) and are offered through a grant provided by the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services. 

The ToTAL Program is provided through IDS at The University of Southern Mississippi, Mississippi’s University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities. For over 40 years, IDS has upheld 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 three primary areas:  Community Living; Education and Capacity Building and Family Engagement. 

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