Stafford Connects

January 25, 2024, Feature, by Elena Messenger, M.S., CTRS, CPRP

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How this program addresses a crucial need for neurodiverse individuals

In May 2018, while overseeing the therapeutic recreation program at Stafford County (Virginia) Parks and Recreation, I found myself in a thought-provoking conversation with my colleague, Nicole Moore. We were discussing the scarcity of employment opportunities for working-age adults with developmental disabilities. This conversation resonated deeply with me, as I reflected on my two cousins who are developmentally disabled. Their stories were a testament to the transformative power of employment; they had found not just jobs, but also a sense of purpose and belonging through local programs. Their work experiences significantly enhanced their self-esteem and overall quality of life. Witnessing the joy and pride they took in their roles, and the support they received from their colleagues and workplace, was truly inspiring.

Around the same time, I had the opportunity to engage with several developmentally disabled and/or neurodiverse members of our community. It became evident that they too yearned for greater inclusion and participation in community life. Although my expertise was primarily in adaptive recreation, I noticed a shift in the needs of our community in Stafford. There was a growing demand for more social and educational programs, but what stood out was the need for something more foundational — meaningful employment.

I saw a gap that needed bridging and envisioned creating a pathway to employment, one that was specifically designed for adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities. This pathway would not only offer them the opportunity to explore different fields but also provide them with skills to increase their marketability. It would also integrate them more fully into the fabric of our community. Thus, the concept of Stafford Connects — a program that would go beyond traditional recreational and educational offerings to provide real, tangible employment opportunities — began to take shape.

Employment Challenges for Individuals With Disabilities

Although there are signs of improvement, the employment landscape for individuals with disabilities continues to be complex and challenging. According to a comprehensive 2022 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the unemployment rate among adults with disabilities stood at an alarming 7.6 percent, almost twice as high as that of the general population. This stark disparity highlights a significant societal challenge that demands attention and action.

Digging deeper, the data reveals a troubling reality, particularly for those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Estimates suggest that the unemployment rate for this group skyrockets to nearly 86 percent. This figure is not just a number, but also a reflection of the multitude of challenges and barriers faced by neurodiverse individuals in the workforce. Despite a strong willingness to work, evidenced by 77 percent of unemployed neurodiverse individuals being open and eager for employment, they encounter numerous obstacles.

The barriers are multifaceted, ranging from physical limitations to broader societal issues. One of the most significant hurdles is negative employer attitudes. There’s a pervasive lack of understanding and accommodation in the workplace, which often stems from misconceptions about the capabilities of individuals with disabilities. Additionally, the lack of targeted job training and placement services further exacerbates the issue, leaving many neurodiverse individuals without the support they need to find and sustain employment.

Redefining Inclusion in the Workplace

Stafford Connects’ initiative illuminates a path of hope and opportunity. This program is uniquely designed to provide mentorship, job and life skills training for young adults ages 18-30 with disabilities. Over a 12-week engagement period, participants are paired with experienced government employees to explore and engage in a variety of job roles. It’s as much about discovering personal interests and strengths as it is about recognizing areas for improvement and discovering dislikes. We believe in the power of continuous engagement to cultivate a sense of accomplishment and belonging.

The approach is centered on identifying opportunities that ensure mutual success for both participants and facilitators. A key aspect is the emphasis on finding stable and long-term employment opportunities. We recognize that sustained involvement in a job role can significantly influence an individual’s perception of success and self-worth. For example, for some, tasks like preparing silverware in a restaurant might seem repetitive, yet they are essential and can be tailored to accommodate the unique abilities of various individuals. This reflects our dedication to understanding and meeting the specific needs of each participant, and ensuring every job role is a stepping stone toward a successful and fulfilling career.

For participants who prefer working outdoors with minimal social interaction, roles within the parks department, such as field and facility maintenance, are ideal. These positions offer the tranquility of nature and the satisfaction of physical work. In contrast, those who excel in social settings or have strong organizational skills might find their niche in office-based roles, where their interpersonal and administrative abilities can shine.

Stafford Connects serves a wide spectrum of disabilities, from autism and Fragile X syndrome (a genetic disorder) to various developmental and intellectual disabilities. The program meticulously outlines specific goals and tasks, with a strong emphasis on developing soft skills. These skills, which range from communication and teamwork to problem-solving and adaptability, are vital for success in any professional environment. By honing these abilities, Stafford Connects not only prepares participants for immediate job roles, but also equips them with a comprehensive skill set that is invaluable for long-term career progression.

The program places a significant focus on interview preparedness. Participants are trained in articulating their strengths, responding to questions with confidence, and effectively showcasing their skills and qualifications. This training is crucial in empowering them to navigate the job market successfully. Post-program, participants leave with a concrete set of tasks and experiences across diverse environments, providing a solid foundation for building a robust résumé.

Stafford Connects is more than just a program; it’s a transformative journey that bridges the gap between capability and opportunity, creating a more inclusive and diverse workforce.

A Comprehensive Approach

The operational framework of Stafford Connects is meticulously designed to offer a robust and enriching experience for its participants. This three-month program is more than just a commitment; it’s a journey of discovery and growth, tailored to the unique interests and needs of each participant.

Participants are given the opportunity to engage with a variety of Stafford County government departments, including human resources; administration; parks, recreation and community facilities; public works; geographic information systems; planning and zoning; the animal shelter; and the sheriff’s office. These departments serve as dynamic environments for learning and development, offering a diverse range of tasks and experiences.

The program’s structure is thoughtfully inclusive yet rigorously structured. We ensure that each participant is not only prepared, but also eager to fully immerse themselves in the opportunities available. A significant portion of the program is devoted to hands-on skills development in partnership with various departments. This practical approach covers a wide array of tasks, from administrative duties, like filing and managing phone calls, to more physical activities, such as lawn mowing, equipment maintenance and inventory management.

The application process for participants is comprehensive, designed to ensure a good fit for both the individual and the program. Prospective participants complete a detailed application, including interest forms, medical documentation and recommendation letters. This is followed by a panel interview that includes a Stafford County representative, a subject matter expert, and a disability advocate and community member, who assess the suitability and readiness of each applicant for the program.

In parallel, government and partner organization employees who express interest in participating undergo a thorough application process. Their applications detail relevant experience and the specific job tasks, hands-on experiences and skills their department can offer. These applications are meticulously reviewed to ensure alignment with the program’s goals and the needs of the participants.

Once accepted, applicants receive extensive training from subject matter experts in disability awareness, program objectives and often disability-specific training tailored to the participant they will be assisting. We also value and encourage input from caregivers, parents or friends of the participants. While not mandatory, this input can be invaluable in shaping a more personalized and effective experience for each participant.

In essence, Stafford Connects operates on a foundation of careful planning and personalized attention. The goal is to ensure every participant, regardless of their background or ability, finds a place where they can grow, learn and contribute meaningfully.

Overcoming Challenges and Securing Support

The path to establishing Stafford Connects was paved with challenges, mirroring the very obstacles faced by the disabled workforce. One of the most formidable barriers we encountered was a prevailing negative attitude and skepticism from various stakeholders. Convincing county commissioners and integrating diverse departments into the program required a strategic and empathetic approach.

To build buy-in during the initial phase, we focused on presenting a robust and compelling case. This involved gathering and showcasing testimonials from local families whose lives had been positively impacted by programs for individuals with disabilities. These powerful narratives served not only as evidence of the program’s potential impact, but also as a means to humanize the issue.

Our argument for Stafford Connects extended beyond the immediate benefits for the participants. We emphasized the broader impact on the community, highlighting how such a program could diversify the workplace and foster a culture of inclusion. By demonstrating the multifaceted advantages of the program, we were able to gradually shift perspectives and build support.

A crucial component of our strategy was collaborating with existing organizations and agencies that already worked with individuals with disabilities. These entities became invaluable allies, advocating for the creation of Stafford Connects. Their support lent credibility to the initiative and provided essential resources that were instrumental in its development.

Highlighting Triumphs and Transformation

The remarkable success of Stafford Connects is most vividly reflected in the stories and feedback from those directly involved in the program. Participants and managers alike have shared glowing testimonials about their experiences and the profound impact the program has had.

Take Suzanne Smith, a recreation manager who was initially skeptical about the program’s feasibility. Her doubts were quickly dispelled as she witnessed Stafford Connects not only meet, but also exceed expectations. Then there’s the story of Carson, a participant who discovered not just joy, but also invaluable skills through his involvement. His experience is a testament to the program’s ability to provide meaningful and enriching opportunities. Another memorable moment was hearing the impact the program had on parents and caregivers. For instance, the father of our participant, J.R., shares that this program “gave my adult child his first experience being part of a team in an employment environment.”

Beyond these individual success stories, Stafford Connects has catalyzed significant benefits that ripple through the entire community. Programs like Stafford Connects empower individuals with disabilities by offering them meaningful work opportunities. This empowerment goes far beyond the workplace; it fosters confidence, enhances self-esteem and improves the overall quality of life. Participants find a renewed sense of purpose and accomplishment, which is crucial for mental well-being. The structured routine, skill building and social interactions provided by employment can play a vital role in mitigating feelings of isolation and depression, common challenges faced by individuals with disabilities.

Moreover, the integration of individuals with disabilities into the workforce serves as a powerful counter to prevailing stereotypes and reduces the stigma associated with disabilities. Stafford Connects and similar programs promote diversity and inclusion in the workforce, allowing companies to tap into a diverse pool of talent and bring varied perspectives and skills to the workplace.

In essence, the success of Stafford Connects is not just measured in employment statistics or program completion rates. Its true success lies in the personal growth of participants, the changed perceptions within the workplace, and the creation of a more inclusive and empathetic community.

Inclusive Change: Embracing the Future

The journey and successes of Stafford County’s initiative transcend its immediate environment, standing as a beacon for communities everywhere. This program is not only a guiding example; it joins the call for a fundamental shift in how we view and integrate neurodiverse individuals and those with developmental disabilities in the workplace.

Stafford Connects exemplifies the immense value of inclusive employment and the transformative outcomes born from dedication and teamwork. Its success stories and the positive changes it has brought about in the lives of individuals and the community are a powerful testimony to what can be achieved when we commit to understanding, embracing and empowering diversity in all its forms.

With thoughtful planning, empathetic understanding and collaborative effort, it is possible to create a workplace that not only accommodates, but also celebrates the unique contributions of every individual, regardless of their abilities.

As we look to the future, the story of Stafford Connects challenges us to rethink our approaches and attitudes toward employment and inclusion. It invites communities everywhere to take bold steps toward embracing diversity , not as an obligation, but as an opportunity to enrich our workplaces and societies.

Elena Messenger, M.S., CTRS, CPRP, is Program Manager, Single Marine Program at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune-New River.