Your first job: whether you worked in an office, restaurant, store or other business, your first professional experience teaches you about the world of work and grows your chances for future opportunities.
For students with disabilities, that opportunity to start work is harder to come by: the jobless rate for people with disabilities is about twice as high as the rate for those without a disability. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rates for persons with a disability was 7.6 percent compared to 3.5 percent for those without a disability in 2022.
Community Access Unlimited (CAU) is working to change the narrative for students in Union and Essex counties who have a disability to help them transition to a more independent adulthood. Through a nine-week paid internship program supported by a grant from the NJ Division of Vocational and Rehabilitation Services (DVRS), 34 students built their professional experience this winter and spring, most of them for the first time. CAU provides comprehensive supports for individuals with disabilities and youth at risk to help them reach their goals and integrate into the community.
“I feel like I have more confidence in myself and I’m ready for what comes next,” said Osayemwenre Akenbor, 19, who worked at Walgreens and learned customer service skills and how to stock a store.
The students recently celebrated completion of their internships at a graduation ceremony at CAU. For five of them, the experience has led to permanent positions. The internship program, now in its fourth year, is part of comprehensive employment services at CAU, including supportive employment (job coaching), career counseling, and pre-employment transition services.
Melody Holiday, CAU director of transition services, joined the employment services team in 2022 to manage the growing program, building the number of participating employers and supporting 26 interns in 2023, compared to 9 in 2022.
“It’s helping them towards their independence and becoming productive members of society,” Holiday said. “The program is about helping them to be successful in their own communities.”
CAU also gave special thanks to LaPrice Weatherington, Newark Board of Education program specialist for high school transition, for her four years working with the program to enroll as many eligible students as possible.
“Since day one Ms. Weatherington has been our number one fan with assisting in recruiting students and supporting an all-inclusive workforce,” said Sandra Lynch, CAU managing assistant executive director of employment and community support program, who presented Weatherington with a CAU Appreciation Award.
Students shared that in addition to CAU supporting them to find and complete their internships, the agency also assisted with transportation training, such as learning how to take an Uber or train, as well as resume preparation and soft skills such as communicating in a professional setting. CAU skills instructors Angela Williams and Williemae Bryant checked in during shifts to provide any needed guidance.
“I was learning how to get my work complete and keep a schedule,” said Darnell Dunn, 22, who worked in the office at American History High School. “My grades got better and I feel like I have good experience.”
Cashmeir Chambers, 17, assisted in administrative duties at Weequahic High School.
“I enjoyed myself, it was helpful and that’s what I wanted- my first goal was to get a job there and make money,” Chambers said.
The internship experience has also been transformative for employer partners like Jackie Park Albaum, director of environmental justice and urban agriculture at Groundwork Elizabeth. Albaum worked with six interns to train them on working in a greenhouse, building garden beds and general maintenance tasks. Some of the garden beds will be used at community gardens in Elizabeth and at schools around Union County.
“We were happy to have the students join us and excited to be their first work location,” Park Albaum said. “I think it provided a good introduction to working in a nonprofit agriculture environment and to managing basic tasks.”
Park Albaum encouraged employers to hire people with disabilities and reach out to become involved in the variety of workforce development programs that bring in employees with disabilities.
“I think everyone brings value,” she said. “We can always find a way to put a seat at the table and it’s important to include those with disabilities in your workforce.”
For more information on becoming an employer partner of CAU, call Melody Holiday at 908-845-2633 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.