High school seniors with disabilities get helping hand in job market

Published: April 16, 2009  |  Source: northwestgeorgia.com
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David Renz works as a manager at Ownbey Enterprises even though he uses a wheelchair because of a spinal cord injury from a fall several years ago.

The Dalton resident said he wants his younger counterparts with disabilities to have employment opportunities as well. Beginning this August, they will.

Up to 12 high school seniors with disabilities are expected participate in a new internship program called Project SEARCH. It’s a joint program of Dalton Public Schools, Whitfield County Schools and Hamilton Health Care System and is sponsored by Cross Plains Community Partner and the local Department of Human Resources Vocational Rehabilitation office. It aims to help students with disabilities get jobs, while also allowing businesses fill positions.

“I feel like (this would help) some of the kids that are graduating from high school and being reclusive,” said Renz, 53.

Students will rotate through paid jobs at Hamilton Health Care System in materials management, laundry, hospitality services and food services during the school year. The Whitfield system will supply a teacher and paraprofessional to work on-site. Dalton schools will also help fund the program, organizers said.

“Our dream is to enlarge it to let everybody in the county know that people with disabilities are responsible, reliable and valuable employees,” said Debbie Sneary, a physical therapist with Whitfield County Schools.

The Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities and local officials on Wednesday discussed how to help people with disabilities at the Dalton-Whitfield Chamber of Commerce. Representatives from Cross Plains — a Dalton facility that supports adults with disabilities — Dalton State College, Whitfield schools and the hospital attended as well as parent advocates and other community members.

Eric Jacobson, executive director of the 26-member council, said representatives had not visited Dalton since at least 1993. They plan to host their quarterly meeting at the Northwest Georgia Trade and Convention Center today at 10 a.m. A public forum will be held from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. for anyone interested in discussing ways to improve services for people with disabilities.

Chairman Tom Seegmueller, an Albany resident with a 16-year-old son who has a mild form of autism, said the council helps influence public policy to be fair to people with disabilities and to help them connect with services.

His son, for example, is unable to drive at this point, but he is an Eagle Scout and honor roll student, he said. He has been successful partly because he was able to get the necessary therapy and additional attention he needed early, Seegmueller said.

“He’s accomplished so may things we first thought he might not,” Seegmueller said. “Our next hurdle is how do we transition Tyler from high school to a college setting.”

Sneary said many students just need a few accommodations to help them be successful employees. A student with a developmental disability might need to see pictures of steps needed to work on an assembly line, she said. Sneary said many students with disabilities often perform superior work because they value their jobs more than others.

“It’s not about a handout,” Jacobson added. “This is really about using people with the necessary skills to get the job done.”

By Rachel Brown
Dalton Daily Citizen