By Ross Hooley.
The Building Futures Project, a transition project of the Nemasket Group, believes that students with significant disabilities (14 – 22 years) should have the same opportunities as other students to work, to further their education and be active members of their own communities. For many students with challenging needs, transitional “outcomes” need to be measured not just in terms of the traditional skills typically taught to students, but also in the quality of the relationships they have developed, the breadth of community experiences they have had and the opportunities that have arisen as a result of these experiences. The level of participation in community life after leaving high school will be mostly determined by the relationships students develop in their community. If students are to participate in meaningful, valued activity they need to have a wide range of experiences that will not just help them discover their preferences and talents, but will allow for opportunities to arise out of the relationships that have developed from these experiences.
In educating students with disabilities, schools must not just look at the learning experience in the classroom, but what are the skills the student need to have to be able to live, work and participate fully in the community. Started in 1999, the Building Futures Project is designed to offer families and schools a unique resource in helping develop these skills. Since then, over 70 students from nine local school systems have used our services. Our work focuses on providing customized services to students with challenging needs in the community who require extra attention and 1:1 support in the following areas: job exploration in local businesses; finding paid employment that matches the student’s skills and abilities; support to pursue continuing education; teaching life skills in places where student’s will use them; summer programs tailored to the needs of the student; developing friendships with peers and person centered planning. All support takes place in the community and each student has their own support person. The school team selects from a menu of services that which will best meet the needs of the student.
All the work we do is important in developing a foundation of skills, experiences and relationships that can continue to be built on as teenagers grow into young men and women. In our work, we often find that having a friend is of greater priority than having a job. Typically, the students we support know and are known by a lot of people, however that does not necessarily translate into having a friend. There is no secret recipe for turning a casual acquaintance into a true friendship. As we think about our own relationships, most of our acquaintances do not become close friends. When two people really do “click”, there seems to be an element of “magic” involved. Providing opportunities for a student to meet people who have similar interests is an important step to developing fulfilling, supportive relationships. However, it is just the first step. People need time together to get to know each other and to share experiences. This cannot be forced or rushed, but does create the possibility of a friendship developing.
Craig is a fifteen year old high school student with a developmental disability and medical issues requiring nursing support. While most teenagers participate in activities with their school friends (e.g. going to movies, parties), Craig’s social life revolved around his family. On weekends, he would stay at home. Despite attending an inclusive school, he had a hard time developing friendships beyond just having “acquaintances”. The Special Education Director from Craig’s school asked Building Futures to help him develop more fulfilling friendships with his classmates. A “circle of friends” meeting was organized by Building Futures staff with Craig and a number of his peers who shared similar interests. The group came up with a plan to assist Craig to be more involved outside of school. The group met regularly and over the summer did a lot of “typical teenager stuff” including going to a wrestling match, having a cookout, and going to the movies.
There is, however, a larger community outside of his school that Craig could explore and become involved in. The people and associations we have and where we feel a sense of belonging define our communities: it may be our church, a social group, our neighborhood or being a member of a local theater group. For Craig we need to think about where to begin to build these types of connections in places where he feels “a belonging”. In connecting Craig to these places, it helps to know the community-what organizations and clubs exist, who belongs to them, and what there is to do. Sometimes there are people who are not necessarily community leaders, but are people who have an extensive social network who can help make these introductions and connections. With this information, we can then go about the process of introducing Craig to people who share similar interests and hobbies.
Elements in supporting students to develop more fulfilling friendships are:
- assisting student to develop a vision for their “relationship future”.
- working with the student and members of the school community to help facilitate and
deepen the relationships that the student already has.
- assisting student to create a “circle of friends” consisting of peers who share similar
- brainstorming ideas with the circle of activities based on these interests.
- inviting members of the circle to participate in these activities together.
- gathering information with student about local community groups and activities that exist.
- assisting student to be introduced to people who have similar interests by joining a
group or association.
- assisting student to maintain these friendships through encouragement, problem
solving, reciprocity and “social” engineering.
For more information on our services please contact Ross Hooley, Director of the Building Futures Project. Ross can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 508-999-4436 ext. 162. There is also a promotional DVD available that can be accessed through the Nemasket Group website at www.nemasketgroup.org.
Director of the Building Futures Project