It seems it’s impossible to get a job without relevant experience, and impossible to get that experience unless you’ve already had a job. This vicious cycle shuts many potentially outstanding employees out of jobs – especially those with disabilities. 

Nurse Erin Riehle and Susan Riehle created Project SEARCH in Cincinnati in 1996. She was struggling to find reliable team members to stock shelves in the ER department she directed at Children’s and wondered if people with disabilities could do the job. Employing people with disabilities was uncharted territory.  

From its inception, the program changed Riehle and her abled colleagues’ perspectives about working with people with disabilities. Project SEARCH employed 35 young people with disabilities in its first year, giving them access to critically important employment experiences. Today, there are over 600 Project SEARCH work sites spread across 49 American states and 10 countries. 

“Project SEARCH is the best example of families, schools, community and local businesses coming together to focus on supporting young adults with disabilities to be productive members of their community,” said Kathy Hurley, Kalamazoo RESA transition coordinator. 

Students develop their strengths by completing yearlong rotating internships that enable them to effectively transition into the workforce as independent adults. At Bronson, they might rotate through entry level roles like customer service, food preparation or environmental services. This year, staff have adapted their program to be delivered five days a week, with one day of face-to-face learning, three days of internship site experience and one day of virtual classroom activities. 

 “We train everyone on the work skills, but also social skills are a huge component and are just as important,” said Jo Ann Hurst, Kalamazoo RESA/Project SEARCH instructor. “We work on business etiquette and professional expectations so they can really be all-around successful.” 

Nearly all of Kalamazoo’s Project SEARCH graduates have gone on to secure gainful employment, many of them at the sites where they completed internship rotations. This year, KRESA hired multiple graduates to work on the custodial team.

“They become dream employees,” said Hurst. “These are people who are excited about the work they do every day, who want to be there, who are great at the work that they do.” 

Community Rallies to Create 1,000 Clear Masks

Masks are critical to stopping the spread of coronavirus, but they pose a major challenge for deaf or hard-of-hearing people, who rely on being able to see a person’s whole face to communicate.  

Kalamazoo RESA audiologist Nancy Gallihugh and human resources assistant Kalee Paul knew using transparent masks instead could help keep communication lines open with KRESA’s more than 100 deaf and hard of hearing students. After brainstorming with her colleagues Suzie Juip and Robyn Hill, Gallihugh concluded they needed to come up with 1,000 reusable clear masks for deaf and hard-of-hearing students and the staff that work with them. But where were they going to be able to get these masks? 

They searched for commercially available clear masks, but unfortunately, they were back-ordered for months, well into the fall. On top of their lack of availability, the number of transparent, disposable masks needed would be impossible to afford, racking up over $10,000 a month in estimated costs.  

Gallihugh expressed her frustrations to teacher Kat Frink at Portage Central High School, dismayed that there were such seemingly insurmountable obstacles. An incredible journey began to unfold when Frink offered to connect Gallihugh with two crafting clubs she had joined earlier in the year.  

Community members, from Crafters Combatting COVID and the Southwest Michigan Protective Gear Project, jumped at the chance to create 1,000 clear, reusable masks. Frink coordinated the project and recruited sewers, giving them easy-to-follow written instructions and video tutorials, along with supply kits with laser-cut mask materials.  

Volunteers from all over Southwest Michigan immediately got to work, and before they knew it, Frink and Gallihugh were driving to pick up hundreds of finished masks everywhere from Battle Creek to Paw Paw to Grand Rapids. The last of the 1,000 masks were completed this week, in time to be distributed for the school year. 

In a time where it seems like everyone is drained from day-to-day life during a pandemic, most of the time, even doing the bare minimum can feel exhausting. With this project, the whole community came together and put an incredible amount of effort – and so much love – into these masks.  

The effort doesn’t stop there, though. Gallihugh and her colleagues are working to ensure both virtual and in-person learning are optimized for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.  

“Remote learning is difficult for students with hearing loss for a number of reasons,” she said. “Kids, in general, are not used to learning in front of a screen for seven hours a day, and our students specifically are limited by lack of visual and environmental cues.” 

Gallihugh works with Juip and Hill on a committee for all the school districts in the KRESA service area to ensure videos are captioned completely and correctly. Videos and live streams not only need to be optimized for captioning but also need to be well lit and free of background noise. She has also created a Google site with resources for teachers, coaching them on remote student learning.  

“We want our students to have every opportunity to equal access to education,” Gallihugh said. 

Building Justice & Growth through Juvenile Home School Programs

Both the ILC and YCS programs are co-administered by KRESA, Family Court, the Juvenile Home, Day Treatment, and local school districts in Kalamazoo County and the surrounding areas. Principal Laura Draper leads from a deep motivation to give students a high-quality education. 

“Our mission is to offer excellent instruction and educational resources that meet students where they’re at,” she said. “Beyond academics, we focus on social-emotional growth and building restored relationships with their families and community.” 

Especially since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement beginning in 2014, white supremacy and how it poisons communities has been a major part of public discourse. The connection cannot be ignored between injustice in the criminal justice system and the life outcomes of people of color (especially those who are Black and/or Latinx). 

“Our students, who are mostly people of color, know the criminal justice system isn’t built to work in their favor,” Draper said. Younger students know things aren’t fair, but they don’t always have the language to describe what they’re experiencing or know the historical or society-wide contexts for why they’re experiencing it. The older kids spot racism very easily.”  

According to the US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the US Census, populations of young incarcerated Michiganders are disproportionately people of color. Kalamazoo county specifically arrests and incarcerates Black youth at rates double to triple national and state averages.  

According to the Michigan Committee on Juvenile Justice, Black children in Kalamazoo County have been arrested at rates eight to ten times higher than their white peers over the past five years, and are eleven times more likely to be charged with multiple crimes at once.  

They are often arrested for disorderly conduct, a subjective and vague category, while not a single white young person was arrested for disorderly conduct in MCJJ’s data. Accusations of motor vehicle theft have gotten young Black people arrested at 42 times the rate of white young people, likely due to police stop and frisk policies and practices that uniquely target Black drivers.  

About two-thirds of the students admitted to the Juvenile Home from 2016 to 2018 were Black. The Juvenile Home School’s teachers are all white, while almost all their support staff are people of color. In examining how it can correct inequities the system, one of KRESA’s primary goals is recruiting teachers of color, coupled with educating white teachers about racism. 

“I think more than other programs that I’ve seen, KRESA and the Juvenile Home put an effort toward addressing anti-racism and anti-bias in their own environments,” tutor Jermaine Williams said. 

Staff of color like Williams are critical to students’ success, not only because of their academic guidance, but also because they are trusted adults who demonstrate leadership and can share their own experiences with racism. 

Staff are consciously adding more books written by people of color, and content that centers the experiences of people of color, into their curriculum. 

“History, at least most of the history in standard curriculum, is written by and about white people,” Draper said. “We need to revamp texts and find or create curriculum to be more honest, relevant, and representative of the often-ignored experiences of everyone else.” 

In addition to customizing content, staff and students have had to create new structures because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to March, the Juvenile Home’s educational programs looked a lot like traditional school. Students have a variety of teachers, classes and projects. They get the individual attention and customized assistance they need because classes are capped at 10 students and they have access to individual tutoring. 

“We [staff] spend so much time with them one on one, so it’s a lot easier to understand what we need to improve from that,” said Williams. 

Adapting to distance learning, like many other schools, required the Juvenile Home team to get resourceful and creative. In the interest of helping students avoid feeling overwhelmed, rather than maintain regular structures with multiple teachers, they created pods of students who have one teacher who acts as a direct point of contact and conducts video calls every week. Teachers were paired with students based on existing foundations of trust. 

Draper and her colleagues collected a survey at the beginning of the pandemic, and found that only nine of their students had access to technology beyond cell phones. Creating a Facebook group to communicate with students proved to be an accessible avenue. 

“There just isn’t a way to replicate in-person classroom experiences,” said Draper. “We knew our students need help from adults not only for their academics, but also to continue their social-emotional learning and keep them connected to us and each other. Independent work packets don’t go far enough, so we needed a solution.” 

The Facebook group has been a home base for current students, as well as former students who are equally interactive. 

“We almost never know what our former students are doing after they leave, because we only teach up to 11th grade,” Draper said. “It’s heartening to see past students post in the group, and say things like ‘You don’t know what you did for me, and I’ve missed you so much.’ The group will definitely continue even after the pandemic is over because it’s been so powerful for so many reasons.”

The Show Goes On

The global Coronavirus pandemic has changed how we do almost everything. It’s required students and educators to radically adjust what learning looks like, which has proved uniquely challenging in special education. 

“The voices that haven’t really been listened to belong to kids with special needs and their families. For everybody this experience is hard, but for them, having to adapt to changes is ten times more challenging than students in general education,” said Meghan Feeman, a music therapist at Kalamazoo RESA’s WoodsEdge Learning Center. 

WoodsEdge is a year-round school where there’s never a break from in-person education for more than two weeks, so that students can consistently maintain their knowledge and skills. She and her colleagues have had to rapidly innovate to continue supporting students with disabilities while they can’t attend school in person. 

“It was a challenge at the beginning to adapt, because there were no handbooks or examples for how to successfully do this,” said Feeman. “I remember feeling so desperate to try to help in person, and I couldn’t because we all have to stay home. I knew families were struggling and I wanted to support them.” 

Based on teachers’ requests and school-wide behavior goals, she uses music to help students develop skills like waiting, attention, emotion identification and communication. The delivery of that work had to evolve to safely give families much needed therapeutic assistance through remote technologies. She didn’t know how challenging the technical side would be, or how effective remote music therapy would be, but she moved forward. 

She brainstormed and problem-solved with colleagues who teach art and physical education, who could readily relate to each other’s experiences. They all struggled to figure out how to translate their in-person activities to accessible and user-friendly digital resources so that every single student ages five to eighteen can participate from home.  

Feeman and her collaborators found that different strategies work for each of them. She landed on regularly uploading resources to a Google Drive folder, producing weekly videos and printable handouts for students and parents in both English and Spanish.  

WoodsEdge’s mission is to develop independence in their students, and developing remote therapy activities might feel a little like an independence trial by fire. She’s been building her weekly content with familiar routines, mnemonics, phrases and songs that enable students to more easily engage on their own and practice their skills. 

“Not all of our kids have hobbies or things they like to do at home, specifically things that they could do by themselves,” she said. “Parents could put on a video and the kids could follow it. It looks like something we do at school, so it’s designed to help them follow better. I slow down and speak less in general so they have more room for processing time.” 

Feeman’s resources empower students to continue growing, practice skills independently and not backslide on their progress. Because they can do the activities alone, their parents have new opportunities to focus on different responsibilities like working from home or taking care of their other children. 

Remote therapy has required much more communication with parents than has been normal in the past. Because of that, staff and teachers have developed stronger positive relationships with parents that will carry over into whatever the next new normal is when students can safely return to in-person education.  

“The average parent doesn’t get to see what music therapy looks like day-to-day, and because of this, they get to,” Feeman said. 

She hopes that these newly much more collaborative relationships will allow parents to feel freer to reach out for help when they need it and give teachers and staff a more real life understanding of how they can best support parents through the resources they offer. 

From Freshman to Flourishing

EMC allows high school students to earn an associate degree or certificate at the same time as their high school diploma. Coaches are available for guidance during their transition to their career. When Hall first heard about EMC, she believed it was a great chance to get a jump start in any field.

“I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew if I did this, I’d learn from it and I wouldn’t be wasting my time,” Hall said.

“I’ve changed for the better, especially how I’ve become more confident,” Hall said. “Now, I know if I push myself out of my comfort zone, I can be successful at anything when I work hard and put my mind to it.” 

Hall’s mentors at KVCC assigned her a major project: designing the annual student planner. She tackled the project head-on and used her own experience as a student—and her love of bullet journaling—to make the planner as user-friendly as possible.  

“As an intern, I was guided by really wonderful women who trusted and had faith in me,” Hall said. “That project gave me a good amount of pressure and helped me stretch my wings. I had a lot of fun with it.”  

Gaining practical hands-on experience taught Hall how to be a designer and a working adult. An ambitious go-getter, one of her major learning points from her experience in EMC is to know when to rest and how to prioritize her personal life. Working herself too hard ultimately made her realize she needed to be kinder to herself.  

“I got burned out only focusing on school and work,” she said. “I get worse results that way, and I can see it in my designs. I learned that sometimes you have to accept that your work won’t be as good as you want it to be, but you do your best anyway.”  

Hall is stepping straight into her career as a junior designer at KVCC and hopes to become a self-sufficient freelance graphic designer and spend her life experiencing the world through travel. After she took bold steps in EMC and pushed her limits, she now has the tools she needs to do it.   

“If you’re thinking about it at all, just do it,” she said. “There is no losing with this program. You’re not going to lose money or waste your time. I met good people and learned so much, and I would recommend this to anyone who’s considering it at all.”