Teens and young adults fill a special need in local communities

Twenty-year-old Matthias Voelkl said he enjoys his job delivering newspapers to businesses in two Steiner Ranch shopping centers.

As a student with autism spectrum disorder in Leander ISD's Skills for Enhancing Lifelong Fulfillment program, or SELF, Voelkl works with a job coach and teacher to develop skills to help him transition into the community.

"[Voelkl] has gotten more independent [since starting the program]," his mother, Rita Voelkl, said. "He knows how to make his own lunch and take care of himself. My hope for him is to become more independent. I want him to be happy when he leaves [home] and happy when he comes home."

Voelkl's teacher says he fills a need in the Four Points neighborhood where he works in many ways—he provides a valuable service to a newspaper publisher, gains self-confidence and pride in his commitment to his employer, and contributes to the community.

Federal law mandates school districts fund transition services for qualifying students ages 18–22. However, western Travis County districts—Leander, Eanes and Lake Travis ISDs—all provide these services differently.

Leander ISD

LISD offers its students three transition programs—SELF 10, 20 and 30—that vary based on hours spent in the classroom, said Denise Geiger, the program's assistant principal and transition coordinator. SELF 10 provides the most independence for students, and SELF 30 allows the most class time for teaching and coaching, she said. SELF mostly serves students with disabilities who have complex transition needs, she said. LISD special education students are accepted into the program if they graduated from the district and show a need for the program.

"These are kids who need extra help to gain skills to get and maintain employment," SELF instructor Aline Crompton said. "Don't we all like to do things that are meaningful and fulfilling in life?"

SELF operates out of space in the dormitories at Concordia University Texas, where students use campus facilities such as the cafeteria and outdoor spaces.

Crompton said the Concordia University base is an age-appropriate environment and allows students to learn and mingle with college students volunteering in the program.

Geiger said about 80 percent to 85 percent of students in the program work with local businesses

"[SELF students] fulfill a critical need in the middle of the day when it's hard to find people to work," said Cups & Cones co-owner Kristi Nordin, who provides employment opportunities to students. "It doesn't help them if their only job experience is on a campus."

SELF staffers work with family members to develop an employment plan for the student during the program as well as one for after they leave, Geiger said. Job transportation is the biggest hurdle parents face after their child ages out of the district, and the problem is exacerbated by the lack of mass transit in the area, she said.

Besides providing job transportation, staffers oversee a schedule that includes classes on independent living, social skills and personal hygiene, Crompton said. Most SELF 30 graduates transition into a group home whereas the majority of the other SELF graduates live independently, she said.

SELF program fees are funded through the school district. However, Crompton said community donations and fundraisers, such as the upcoming Four Points Chamber of Commerce's Dash to the Splash, are needed to provide needed equipment.

"Every single one of those students has a lot to offer society," Crompton said.

Eanes ISD

Funded in part by a $54 million bond approved in 2011, EISD opened its Adult Transition Services, or ATS, learning center at 1020 Walsh Tarlton Lane in March 2012. The facility includes a kitchen, computer lab, laundry area and classrooms. The program is anticipated to grow from 28 to 41 students next year, Director of Special Education Molly May said.

The ATS program began at Westlake High School before moving to a portable at Cedar Creek Elementary School that did not meet students' needs, she said.

"These students were finished with high school and needed to be in an adult environment," May said.

The new building is designed specifically for the Eanes program, she said. The property is located in the school district and surrounded by community businesses that can employ its students. A bus route stops on Walsh Tarlton Road.

"Our growth comes in reaching out to more businesses [to employ students]," she said. "We're giving back to the community and want the community to see how [it] can benefit from supporting individuals with disabilities."

As with other school districts, EISD funds the ATS program, but community donations enhance the students' learning environment, May said.

Each ATS student is on a different schedule, depending on his or her needs and job hours, May said. The goal of the program is to have the students identify a vocation, develop living skills and be as independent as possible, she said.

"We start at zero and build an [individualized] program [for the student]," she said.

While in the program, ATS staff drive students to their jobs, but some students have used taxi cabs and a few have taken driver's education courses, May said. Most graduates of the ATS program continue to live with parents and must coordinate their own job transportation, she said.

"In Texas there are not enough social service resources to support these students," she said.

She said about 80 percent of ATS students graduate with employment secured, and the remaining 20 percent either have problems getting to work or need more support.

May said she would like to see more program involvement on a college campus.

She also said she wants to work with Seton Healthcare's Project Search that employs transition students in health care jobs at its hospitals. It is used by larger districts including Austin ISD and Hays CISD.

"A student's last day here should mimic their first day on the outside," May said.

Lake Travis ISD

Lake Travis ISD's transition service is located in The Cottage, a home with a kitchen and living areas on the grounds of Hudson Bend Middle School, 15600 Lariat Trail, Austin. The program transitioned off the Lake Travis High School campus in 2007 and has since graduated 10 students, Director of Special Services Laura Abbott said.

The program is individualized with a vocational evaluation and personal input forming a base for each student, she said.

The LTISD transition program includes activities that help students complete a resume and job application as well as practice interview skills, Abbott said.

"Our goal is to provide the skills necessary for life after high school and support toward independence," she said.

Abbott said the program is designed for students who have met their graduation requirements but need more support to transition from high school to adulthood.

Local businesses have partnered with the LTISD program to employ—paid or volunteer—district transition students, she said.

Abbott said the program uses district vans to drive students to and from their jobs, but family members help out as well.

"We don't have public transportation out here, so that limits their mobility to get to these jobs," she said. "It's a huge barrier."

Abbott said her department is exploring the idea of relocating the program to the Hill Country Galleria where students could access jobs, leisure and a grocery store.

"There are so many opportunities to be independent if there was a check-in hub there," she said. "Our goal is to not have a home base and be entirely community-based."