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In the Spotlight: Wendi Gearing, Vocational Leader for P.A.C.E.

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2014 is shaping up to be a big year for NLU’s P.A.C.E. program.

P.A.C.E. — the Professional Assistance Center for Education for young adults with multiple learning disabilities — runs a two-year program that helps students build life skills and gain a greater sense of independence. And a big part is placing these students in meaningful internships to prepare them for future careers. Wendi Gearing oversees that effort and hopes to expand internship sites further in the new year after securing partnerships in 2013 with Mario Tricoci salon, Crafty Beaver hardware and Unleashed dog daycare, to name a few. In addition, she said P.A.C.E. will continue to grow its strong relationship with Rush University Medical Center — one that’s led to the hire of former students.

With a background in special education, Wendi began her career working at a group home for wards of the state, then joined P.A.C.E. in 1993, first as a life skills coach before moving into vocational training. She said she most enjoys recruiting and working with partner companies to better match P.A.C.E. students’ skills and develop their potential.

I spoke with Wendi about her work in P.A.C.E., its relationship with Rush University Hospital and what the program ultimately hopes to accomplish.

How do student internships work in P.A.C.E.?

All P.A.C.E. students, whether they’re first year or second year, attend classes two days a week and then have an internship three days a week. We want them to have as close to a real job experience as possible, so they’re at their internship between six and eight hours per day depending on what the internship site’s needs are. We have over 50 sites that we have developed over the years, some of them we’ve had for almost 20 years, and then [in 2013] we added quite a few new sites. We try to match the student to the site in regards to their interest, as far as things that they think they want to do as a career for themselves, and then obviously we also look at their skills and where they are going to be successful with their real strengths.

A first-year student in P.A.C.E. has two internship sites, 15 weeks each, and the first one we pick for them as they’re coming in off of things maybe they’ve done in high school or over the summer. Then the second one they pick, but it’s an education process because they’re also attending an internship site class at the same time. The students  always share things that are going on at work because if one student is having a problem with their supervisor not giving them directions that they can understand, chances are someone else in the class is having that problem, too. And they also hear about what other students are doing — what some of their job tasks are and how they spend their day at their internship site.

Their second year they choose an internship site that’s in their career path. By that time they’ll say ‘I want to do childcare’ or ‘I want to do clerical’ or ‘I want to work in hospital,’ so we try to place them at that site, and we want them to stay for the entire year at that site. We want them to build a skill bank, so if they’re doing Excel and they’re really, really good at it, they can continue to do that, but we’re going to ask their internship site to maybe give them some experience using PowerPoint or something else so that they can go on an  interview and say, ‘Yes I’ve done Excel; yes I’ve done PowerPoint; yes I’ve done Word.’ We also want them to get a letter of recommendation so that they have that to share at an interview. Because after the two years they have over 1000 hours of internship time, and we want them to be able to go and seek a job that relates to their career path. After their two years in the P.A.C.E. program they are prepared to seek paid employment.

Talk about P.A.C.E.’s relationship with Rush University Hospital.

We’re in our sixth year with Rush, and we started out with a parent that actually is an employee at Rush and said he thought they could use some of our interns. We actually placed his son and one other young man at Rush in their mail room. Other people higher up in the hospital found out about the program and were excited about adding some diversity. The next year I think we had four students that interned there, and then this year we have six students interning and two students that are actually paid employees. One is a young lady who works full time in the on-site employee daycare. She does a phenomenal job. And then we have another student that works in the distribution center part time.

The nice thing about our Rush relationship is because the hospital is so large to begin with, they have so many different types of jobs that we can tap into. They’ve been very receptive to working with our students. The word of mouth works really well there. Each year it’s a different department that says, ‘ I heard from so and so how wonderful your program is and what a great asset your students are when they come to the department, so I’d like a student intern this year. ‘

They just did a diversity lunch-and-learn, and we had our young lady from the daycare speak about her experiences being an intern there and then being hired as a paid employee. Her two supervisors came, and they had a dad come whose son had our student as an intern when his son was a two-year-old, and now he’s in the three- and four-year-old class and he has one of our new students as an intern, so he spoke about how his son would come home and speak about both of these young ladies and how much fun they were.

I think  because it’s a hospital, they hold our students to a really high standard. They give them whole jobs, not just a piece of a job, so that they’re quite marketable when they’re finished with their internship at Rush. Our students step up to the plate and fulfill a great need for them, and at the same time there’s some diversity cross-learning that happens among everybody.

What’s the ultimate outcome for students in the P.A.C.E. program?

When they finish with our two-year program, we have a transition option. It’s apartment living. They get their own apartment. We support them in their life skills, social skill and seeking paid employment. We help get them ready for interviews. We do mock interviews; we have professionals come in and actually participate in interviewing them after we’ve practiced with them. In their second year at P.A.C.E. they actually put together an interview binder, and it has their resume in it and it has their letters of recommendation and pictures of them actually engaging in their job skills that they take with them to interviews.

I think the program has done some longitudinal kinds of studies on our students, and I think 80 percent of the students that have graduated from the program have at least a part-time job.

What do you like most about your work in P.A.C.E.?

I really enjoy the job coaching piece because you’re helping the students be successful, and they’ve gained so much confidence in that working environment because they find things that they’re good at and find things that they’re are passionate about. I like going into the different sites and being able to talk to the site supervisors and help educate them on how to best work with our students. And the sites  in turn help educate us on valuable skills [the students] need to have for the career path they are seeking. Our relationship with our sites is a  two-way relationship; it is very fulfilling.

I enjoy helping the students determine what career path they want to pursue — at least for the next five, six, seven years — and how can we work together to help them achieve this goal. It is a very rewarding job, challenging at times, but rewarding.

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