Pictured above (left to right) are Karen Maag and Tricia Boss from the Putnam County ESC who collaborate with (right to left) Erin Recker and Beth Hempling from the Board of DD on the Work Based Learning initiative - Putnam Sentinel
Pictured above (left to right) are Karen Maag and Tricia Boss from the Putnam County ESC who collaborate with (right to left) Erin Recker and Beth Hempling from the Board of DD on the Work Based Learning initiative. (Putnam Sentinel/Martin Verni)

PUTNAM COUNTY — “There was a young lady, she maybe had a little bit more of a severe disability,” says Beth Hemplfing with the Putnam County Board of Developmental Disabilities. “Her job was to wipe down the hallway railing [at an area nursing home].”

“At first, the people in the rooms would just kind of look out. Then, after awhile, she’d come by and they’d come to the door and talk to her. And then, people [would know] that, ‘Hey, today’s the day she’s coming,’ and they would literally wait for her. She got that interaction and kept it going.”

Everyone benefits in the scenario just described. Which means some might be surprised to learn that Hemplfing is not discussing an enrichment program run through the Board of DD. She’s describing an internship and jobs program. One that began in 2014 when the Board granted the Putnam County Educational Services Center $20,000 for Work Based Learning (WBL). It continues successfully today due to close collaboration between those two agencies, along with area schools, particularly Ottawa-Glandorf and Continental High Schools, and local businesses.

Just like most high school internships, the positions are rarely paid, at least not at first. Instead the program is geared more towards acquiring experience for the students involved.

“They are getting such a great opportunity to figure out, ‘Do I like to wash dishes and bus tables, or, would I rather do some laundry kind of stuff? Do I like interacting with individuals, or would I rather do activity-based things?’ Those kind of [experiences],” says Hemplfing.

“We just have to be able to give them opportunities. When they get out of school…we want them to be more involved in our community. And, that’s what they’re looking forward to. You know, just like us.”

Once placed at a job, nearly every student succeeds, with many going on to find full employment after graduation. That initial placement is one of the program’s main challenges, according to Tricia Boss and Karen Maag, ESC’s Special Ed Coordinators. “[The grant helps fund] a job coach,” answers Boss when asked how this challenge is overcome.

“When we call the business, we say we’re only going to do a ‘practice round,’ ” she continues. “We’ll bring the student in, and the job coach in, and we’ll see. We’ll give [the student] a few positions that they can try. They’ll try a couple of shifts for [the employer] for two hours. We put that limit on there to see where they work best.”

The active economy with low unemployment seems to be having an impact as well. “What’s available, seems to be the part-time and the weird hours,” Maag adds. “And, that’s what our students can do - the shorter hours and those not quite as consistent.”

Approximately 25 students currently participate in the program, which is available to them as soon as the student enters high school. Persons with developmental disabilities are able to remain in school until age 22. “They defer graduation, and then they come back for more transition skills,” explains Boss.

The program increases the likelihood of a successful transition following graduation. “We have a young lady who did a trial [at a local restaurant],” explains Maag. “She’s [now] employed. She’s responsible for her schedule, and she gets there every time. And, every once in awhile, she’s employed outside of her regular hours,” meaning she has done more than prove herself reliable for a narrow set of tasks. She’s able to pickup her co-worker’s shifts as well, filling-in when and where needed.

The goals of the WBL program, according to information provided by Maag, is to provide students with disabilities the opportunity to develop and apply knowledge, skills, and employability attitudes and behaviors, which lead to positive career choices and productive employment. In addition to the on-site job coaching already described, the funds granted from the Board of DD are used to support transportation to the work site.

Students are currently active and working at Challenge Champions, the Putnam County District Library, the Thrift Store, Henry’s Restaurant, McDonald’s, the YMCA, the ESC, the Methodist Church, and the Meadows of Ottawa. Any area business interested in participating in the program may call the Putnam County Educational Services Center (ESC) at: 419-523-5951, and ask to speak with Tricia Boss or Karen Maag.