RISE-ing Up and Changing lives in Virginia: 21 Months and Counting

Alongside my work at Disability Wisdom Consulting, I serve as the Deputy Coordinator for a youth program in Virginia called Project RISE (Resilience, Independence, Self-advocacy, Employment). We serve legally blind students between the ages of 14 and 21. I’ve written about this program here and here. As we approach two years in operation, I wanted to share some reflections on my role in the program, and how our program is unique from others out there.

Last year, we served 35 students living in 14 Virginia cities and surrounding areas. Our program has three major components. First, we hold monthly Saturday meetings in northern Virginia for students to engage in activities with local blind adult mentors. Second, approximately every 3 months, we bring students from across the state to weekend seminars which usually include students and mentors from other parts of the country as well. Third, we arrange individualized career development opportunities for students between sessions and during the summer, like informational interviews with professionals, job shadows, career interest assessments, and summer jobs or internships.

Project RISE is funded as a Pre-Employment Transition Services (pre-ETS) program, meaning we deliver our services using federal funds that have been set aside to help teens with disabilities prepare for employment. As such, many of our sessions focus on career-related skills suchas resume writing, interviewing, and professional networking. But pre-ETS also covers the array of “soft skills” that young people need in order to transition from high school to college and employment. We incorporate fun activities in the community that challenge students to advocate for themselves, build a strong sense of self and acceptance of disability, and learn the techniques to overcome disability-related barriers. Last year our agendas included ceramic painting; visiting a town festival; candle making; baking and grilling lessons; rock climbing; bowling; trips to a mall and movie theater; and meals out at restaurants in the community.

As the Deputy Coordinator for this program, I wear several hats, but perhaps my favorite role is that of a kind of hospitality manager to ensure the students are welcomed and comfortable. I coordinate transportation so that students living in outlying areas can attend our meetings. I send out group and individual communications so all our students and parents know what we are doing and have their questions answered. I am often the one to book meeting spaces and ensure that our meals and activities are set-up and paid for in advance.

When we go out for meals, we give our students and staff a cash allowance to cover their meal cost. One of my jobs is to divide the cash into individual bundles for each student. It involves a careful, almost meditative process in which smaller bills are folded and wrapped inside larger ones (so that students, staff and coordinators can easily distinguish them by touch). The cash bundles are then placed into envelopes and given to our mentors, who distribute the bundles to each of their students. There is something symbolic about passing the cash through our staff mentors, to our students, who are entrusted to spend it appropriately. When we empower students in this way, they learn important life lessons like “if I get the cheaper sandwich, I’ll have enough money left for an ice cream”; ask questions like, “What can I buy here if I only have $3.50 left”; and have discussions about things like how much you need to budget for tip at a sit-down restaurant. The cash bundles are emblematic of our broader philosophy of incorporating self-determination and problem-solving opportunities into everything the students experience.

There are several things that make Project RISE unique, but by far the biggest is the central role of our core mentors. All are blind professionals (or advanced college students) who serve as positive, enthusiastic role models. We also draw upon the vast network of our parent organization, the National Federation of the Blind, to match our students with professionals who can offer career development opportunities. The design is to develop a mentoring matrix in which each student has multiple mentors, and each mentor works with multiple students. For example, in a given year, one of our students may have a relationship with their primary core mentor. They may also spend time with other core mentors in a group setting, and they may be further mentored by different professionals during an informational interview, a brief job-shadow, and then a more involved summer internship. On top of all this, our older students often provide informal peer mentoring to our younger students, offering advice, wisdom, and encouragement to younger students facing situations they have faced themselves.

In our promotional video, one of our students says about our program, “For me, it’s about the people that I meet. It’s about the people I’m able to connect with and the relationships I’ve formed, especially the mentors, they’ve been huge role models in my life and they’ve shown me what I can achieve.” This video was made only a few months after our program started, and in the subsequent 18 months, this student’s network has grown even larger. Ultimately, the relationships seem to be the main source of success for our students, and the main incentive for them to keep coming back.

This job stretches me in different ways than my doctoral training did. It can be challenging to work with so many different groups-students, parents, fellow staff, employers, and vocational rehabilitation counselors. The stakes are higher when we are talking about working with real people and not just research data. I have to stay at the top of my game. But, it has been worth it to invite so many promising young people into our community. I am excited to find out what they will achieve and to keep working beside them.

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