There comes a time in the life of a special-needs child when he or she must start to become more independent from school and family. It is called the "transition years," ages 18 through 22. During this time, public schools offer education and training to prepare these young adults for a life after school.
Some public schools have joined special education cooperatives to meet the training needs of individuals with disabilities.
"The most important goal we have is to train these kids to be as independent as possible by the time they have to leave our programs," said Jen Peterson, a special education teacher with the Northeast DuPage Special Education Cooperative.
NDSEC programs, supported by public school funding, include functional life skills like shopping, banking and money management, cooking, and telephone skills. Also emphasized is development of personal relationships with peers, social protocols with the public, and personal hygiene. In addition, NDSEC programs encourage self-advocacy and try to build a student's self-esteem.
But what happens to special-needs youth once the Illinois public school programs are finished on their 22nd birthdays? It is now up to private and nonprofit agencies to offer life enhancement opportunities to those without the capacity to work.
Northeast DuPage Special Recreation Association offers just such a program for exploring local communities. It is called TREC, short for Transition-aged Recreation Experiences and Community. TREC offers triweekly excursions around town for young adults to begin to teach them about their world outside of school. Volunteering with animal shelters, singing songs to senior citizens, and taking cooking classes are some of the community-based activities TREC offers.
Kris Robertson, TREC program specialist, believes this is a big help to the young adults.
"My biggest thrill is watching their faces light up when we expose them to a new experience. We are offering them a chance to grow and learn things that their parents don't have the time to teach them," Robertson said.
NEDSRA works with the young adult programs of special education cooperatives, like NDSEC, as well as the School Association for Special Education in DuPage and Cooperative Association for Special Education, by offering transportation and staffing.
"We use NEDSRA twice a month for bowling, mini-golf and basketball activities," Peterson said.
For young adults with the capacity to work, the "transition years" are more about finding a job. For higher-functioning youth with disabilities, the Ray Graham Association offers programs designed to place individuals in jobs where they will succeed. Ray Graham offers vocational evaluation and job training.
According to Ray Graham job coach Bob Griffin, it is important for all kids to become involved.
"Even if someone doesn't have a job, we tell them to volunteer for something because it shows commitment," Griffin said. "Our goal is to help the individual become a prominent citizen and earn a paycheck."