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Jobs program helps fill gaps for youth with disabilities

 


Jobs program helps fill gaps for youth with disabilities

Jan. 19, 2005

By John Gordon*

LONGVIEW, Texas (UMNS) — Preparing a resume, tracking down leads and getting ready for interviews can make searching for a job a challenge for anyone. The process can be even more challenging for the 53 million Americans with disabilities.

"They’re falling through the cracks when they graduate from high school," says Debby Puckette, who saw that firsthand with her own family.

She founded Real Jobs for Youth, providing training and encouragement for young people with disabilities and becoming an advocate for employers to hire them.

Puckette relied on her faith as a United Methodist to start the non-profit organization two years ago, trying to fill a gap left by other agencies. She works with students and former students ages 14 to 29.

"The average age that goes to these (other) agencies is 30," she says.

"What happened to the youth? Where are the youth? Well, they’re on a waiting list."

Puckette, who has two sons, is a member of First United Methodist Church in Longview. A conference she attended — on how parents of children with disabilities can become advocates — was the turning point that inspired her to start Real Jobs for Youth.

She began the operation on a shoestring — working on a kitchen table in donated office space. She later moved the office to a community center and then into a building owned by the East Texas Council of Governments, which administers the grant that provides most of her funding. The grant helps with training as well as transportation — a big need for many workers with disabilities.

Puckette’s program is serving a dozen youth. The key to success, she believes, is involving a team of schools, families and businesses in preparing youth for jobs.

She started by helping her youngest son, Mark, 20, who has autism. After months of searching, he landed a part-time job at a department store’s national distribution center.

"I was very excited," he says. "I worked hard to find a job."

Mark saved enough money to buy a car. He is putting his earnings into a savings account in hopes of attending an arts school in Georgia and getting a bachelor’s degree.

But Debby Puckette knows a job means more than a paycheck. It means a "rise in self-confidence, the willingness to go ahead and risk the other things that they might want to try," she says. "You have that dream — well, go for it."

Her young clients face such obstacles as learning disabilities, hearing and visual impairments, mental retardation, autism and cerebral palsy. Sometimes employers make special accommodations, such as providing large-type computer monitors or ramps.

Employers can receive tax credits for hiring workers with disabilities. But Puckette says her clients are not asking for favors or "pity jobs."

"A business is going to hire you because they need you in that position, just like anyone else," she says.

The search can be lengthy. Puckette says it takes an average of six months for a young person with a disability to find a job — and that’s with a high-school diploma. Without one, the search can take a full year.

Real Jobs made a major difference in the life of Toni Phillips, 23, of Longview. Phillips dropped out of school in 10th grade because a learning disability made it difficult for her to pass a geometry course.

"I was just at home, watching TV, relaxing on the couch and not really doing anything with my life," Phillips says.

Now she works two part-time jobs — at a telemarketing company and a local newspaper — while attending adult literacy courses and working toward her high-school equivalency degree.

"It made me a better person," Phillips says. "I’m able to help out around the house, to buy the things that we need, groceries. I’m definitely happier."

She is also taking courses to become a nursing assistant. Her dream is to turn her love for scary movies into a profession by becoming a movie writer and director, perhaps the "female Stephen King."

"I’m able to take one step at a time, day by day, to reaching my dreams," she says.

Puckette is not afraid to knock on doors to help her clients reach their dreams. She networks with employers and encourages them to hire workers with disabilities.

"I feel very, very passionately that, yes, all people have value," she says.

Puckette believes Real Jobs is a program that can be duplicated in any city across the country.

"It makes good business sense to hire someone with a disability," she says. "And it’s good for the community. It’s a win-win situation."

*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer in Marshall, Texas.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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