October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month
Lackawanna County, PA — When 17-year-old Nevaeh began seeing the fruits of her labor in a pre-employment program in Scranton, PA, she took the opportunity to the next level. Nevaeh was part of a four-person Youth Advocate Programs (YAP), Inc. Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) My Work Initiative team earning $10.50 an hour to clean up Scranton parks.
About halfway into her 8-week My Work project, Nevaeh asked her YAP supervisors Jamie Tarnacki and Michael Domarasky if her neighborhood park could be added to the list. Overgrown with weeds and tagged with graffiti, the park was under consideration for a restoration project. City leaders were happy to save money and give the YAP crew a chance to work their magic in one more location.
YAP is a national nonprofit in 31 states and the District of Columbia that provides community-based alternatives to youth incarceration, out-of-home placements, and neighborhood violence. The My Work Initiative is part of Lackawanna YAP’s efforts to provide strength-based tools to prepare young people with developmental disabilities, autism, or other employment challenges for meaningful work.
“These young adults had many park projects on their list and truly transformed these parks and the greater communities by their hard work and positive attitude,” said YAP Regional Director Jennifer Hill.
The nonprofit’s National Coordinator of Developmental Disabilities Lori Burus explained that in addition to the My Work Initiative, Lackawanna County YAP partners with OVR to offer other pre-employment services aimed at helping young people live, work, and contribute to their communities. A program called YAPWORX provides opportunities for young people to meet employers and get a chance to learn about a variety of jobs. YAP also teams with local employers willing to provide on-the-job work experience in exchange for YAP paying program participants’ wages.
Lackawanna County Program Director Denise Shandra is working to recruit new business partners as her team expands pre-employment services for young people with developmental disabilities and behavioral health challenges.
“Typically, in the old way of thinking, many of these young people would be limited to maybe being a store greeter,” she said, adding that through partnerships with local businesses, program participants are getting on-the-job experience that will prepare them to make a livable wage in catering, food service, hospitality, and other fields.
“The benefit of this program is that in exchange for providing guidance and on-the-job training, employers get help in their business from the employee-trainee and their employment specialist at no additional cost to their bottom line,” Shandra said. “They have no obligation to hire the youth at the end of the program but often do. It’s a win- win agreement!”
For example, Lackawanna County YAP Supported Work partner, Van Fleet’s Grove wedding and event venue company provides on-the-job training to a program participant who simultaneously works with Domarasky to receive pre-employment services, said, YAP Lackawanna County Clinical Director Andrea Sharpe.
When this summer’s My Work Initiative project ended, Scranton Mayor Paige Cognetti invited media to a celebration at the city’s Jackson Street Park honoring Navaeh and her teammates, Gabriel, Callum, and Bryan, for their park beautification work. The program participants’ family members joined the celebration.
“As I stood there, I was moved to tears by the power of transformational stories shared by each young adult,” Hill said. “Parents were intentional about sharing their huge thanks and heart of gratitude towards Team Lackawanna as they noticed the changes made in the lives of not only their children but the Greater Scranton Region.”
Nevaeh, who is now enrolled in a community college nursing program, was particularly pleased that the team was able to make her neighborhood park pretty again. She shared her excitement with a WNEP-TV news reporter covering the event.
“It does help me a lot because it also helps me know how to work with people, learn how to have patience with them, learning how to understand them more and understand like what people don’t like and do like and what we can do to help to have a better community,” she said.
Hill said in the Jackson Street Park alone the YAP My Work Initiative crew hauled out over 140 bags of garbage and “uncovered park benches that no one even knew existed. In other parks, they were able to plant donated shrubs, and flowers, clean up liter, and paint needed items,” she added. “The work that this team did truly save the City of Scranton thousands of dollars.”
Hill emphasized that the project was in every way a Lackawanna County team effort.
“The entire team went above and beyond to meet the expectations of this program and truly change lives forever,” she said. “To say that they made a difference is a huge understatement.”