and Success in “Turning Disabilities into Capabilities”
To demonstrate the impact of a tour of PARC’s Community Programs and Services, one needs only to look to its President and CEO. Karen Higgins has been with PARC since 1981, nearly 30 years after the nonprofit’s launch. Her introduction in 1981 came at the encouragement of a friend who had previously learned about the group and its efforts to support Pinellas County individuals facing developmental disabilities. She suggested a tour, and once Higgins saw firsthand what the team at PARC was doing in its residences, she says she fell in love.
“They were bringing people from large institutions throughout Florida and providing smaller group homes, where people had their own rooms, and it was amazing to watch people blossom as they learned how to ride the city bus and showed interest in jobs,” she says. “It was an absolute joy to watch someone discover what they are interested in and explore it. Within two weeks, I had changed careers.”
Higgins points out that PARC’s Community Programs have evolved in its approach over its 65 years history. At the time the organization was founded, the lack of school or community programs to provide families support for children facing developmental disabilities led many families to send away children to state institutions, often at the instruction of physicians also ill-equipped to offer clinical guidance or resources. PARC Community Programs were first designed to be a school to serve these children as well as their parents, providing them support as well such as teaching parents what they may need to do for their child diagnosed with cerebral palsy, as one example. But what started as a program to support children and their parents soon opened up to adolescents and adults, as PARC’s Community Programs expanded its offerings to include education and work programs across age groups, providing valuable resources and support to empower these adults to learn how to live on their own and work with a job coach to seek, acquire and retain a job. Higgins says during the important time periods of growth, PARC was always one step ahead of the rest.
“Long before other people were doing it, PARC was there opening up adult programs, vocational programs, working with coaches in the community. Through the years, we moved away from a more institutional model and believed that all people deserved the opportunity to learn, and sure enough, the school system followed, too,” she says.
Today, PARC provides over 40 services to more than 800 children and adults who face intellectual and developmental disabilities. The nonprofit’s core mission is to connect these children and adults to whatever opportunities they wish to explore – whether it is employment, a residence, artistic expression, or cultivating a skill set or talent. At PARC, each service area is committed to helping program participants become more empowered and independent and find joy in the process.
PARC’s Community Programs work directly with a diverse population: hundreds of children and their families who benefit directly from the organization’s Early Intervention and Education programs such as Head Start and VPK as well as Family and Respite Services; young adults and adults who explore opportunities for creative expression through Inspired Art programs, self-development and lifelong learning, and community employment services; and other adults in the community challenged by intellectual and developmental disabilities who use PARC’s many other valuable resource offerings such as transportation, various therapies and its four residence homes.
The key to PARC’s long-term success, says Higgins, is its focus on the individual and the organization’s progression to what it calls a “person-centered” approach to working with clients. In the past, any state funding granted to nonprofits was distributed based on group funding but that has transitioned to funding by individual, and this has provided the means for PARC also to evolve into a more customized approach to facilitating use of their resources. “We no longer tell you that you have this disability and this is the best thing for you. Now, you tell us what you’d like to do and we find the best opportunity through PARC to help you do it,” she says. “You drive your own program at PARC.”
Nowhere is that better exemplified than in PARC’s successful Community Employment Services program available to young adults and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Its team offers a variety of pre-employment and employment programming including vocational rehabilitation such as career discovery coaching, job preparation, job placement and on-the-job training. In addition, a group of five job coaches is available to work with clients to strengthen employability skills, socialization, financial literacy and self-advocacy within the framework of a safe, supervised environment.
“We work with a variety of folks from different referral sources who come to us and say I’ve never worked before and I’d really like to get out there or I’ve worked before and I’d like a new job or I’ve got a disability and I’d like to get some help with job development, job placement and coaching on the job that will lead to success,” says Michael Ferguson, who serves as Chief Quality Assurance Program Officer for PARC and oversees the employment services program.
Community employment coaches work one-on-one with about 125 young adults and adults currently working across various industries at local businesses and earning at or above minimum wage. Among PARC’s most successful arms of its community employment services are Project SEARCH and the Culinary Arts Teaching Kitchen @ PARC.
Launched by the state in 2007, Project SEARCH is a unique school-to-work program for high school students. Unlike other programs, this one takes place entirely on the job with a blend of classroom instruction, career exploration and hands-on training through worksite rotations. Currently, there are 22 Project SEARCH work sites in Florida. In 2014, PARC launched the first Project SEARCH site on the west coast of Florida, based at Johns Hopkins-All Children’s Hospital in St. Pete. During the program, students can explore multiple occupations and work experiences based on their interests, completing a series of internships and working with coaches to identify which is best suited for them. Ultimately, the desired result of the program is to help students secure competitive employment straight out of high school.
Ferguson shares an example of one of PARC’s Community Program’s-the Project SEARCH success stories. While this young woman was still enrolled in the Pinellas school system, she participated in Project SEARCH as a senior, completing three 10-week internship rotations throughout Johns Hopkins-All Children’s Hospital. After her three experiences, one of them being in food service, she decided that she wanted to participate in another program offered through PARC, The Culinary Arts Teaching Kitchen @ PARC. She enrolled in the program, focused on providing proper culinary training and moving her toward earning her ServSafe certificate, considered the industry standard for safe food preparation and food service certification.
The young woman then worked with the community employment services team to find a job in the community and interviewed at a fine food establishment in St. Pete. Nearly five years later, she is now the lead person in the restaurant’s kitchen and when people are brought through for interviews from the PARC program, they now must meet HER expectations. “She has been provided with opportunities, going from dishwashing and cutlery distribution to moving into food prep. It’s a huge transformation and amazing to see,” says Ferguson. “She used to be very shy with little eye contact but when she’s on the job, they call her the sergeant, so gone are the days of being shy.”
Ferguson reinforces how critical participants are to the process in determining their own path and pace. “Participants can choose to go through the whole vocational program or may decide to take it only to a certain point such as career observation, which still offers the benefit of educating and preparing someone for a position before they accept it,” she says. “It’s all about personal choice.”
An example of PARC’s Community Programs in action include the PARC Culinary Teaching program. This program at the core one young woman’s success story is designed to provide individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities a better chance for job opportunities by cultivating the participant’s marketable job skills. The response from the Tampa Bay restaurant community has been overwhelmingly positive. PARC partners with some of the top restaurants in the area. “Chefs in these restaurants are looking for a diverse workforce, and it’s a wonderful thing to be able to provide hands-on training and cultivate the pride that comes from it.”
The success of PARC’s Culinary Teaching program inspired one of its more recently added fundraisers Top Chefs, now in its fourth year. This year’s event to be held 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, September 15 at The Birchwood in St. Petersburg, continues to attract new restaurant partners to the fundraiser and Culinary Teaching program. This year, Bloomin’ Brands debuts at the festivities in celebration of its new partnership with the PARC Culinary Teaching program and joins Birch and Vine, Guppy’s on the Beach, Rusty’s Bistro, The Galley and (swah-rey). During the event, chefs will be paired with PARC Culinary program students to design a menu offering, prepare it and serve it to guests during the fundraiser. Click here for more information about this year’s Top Chefs event.
For Higgins and the rest of her team, the beauty of PARC is its inherent nature to inspire through collaboration. Many programs and resources are offered through the collective efforts of multiple PARC departments, members of the community and local businesses who reach out to offer internships, career discovery or job placement opportunities. Artists, musicians, and business people such as public speakers and banking professionals often volunteer to lead life learning activities or workshops to impart knowledge and offer hands-on learning experiences. Others who wish to get involved may simply visit the group’s Wish List on the website and choose to donate. “I’ve worked in many places over the years, and PARC has a special vibe, really committed to positive outcomes for all individuals and their families,” Ferguson says. “The mission is embedded in everything.”
Higgins says it is the feedback she receives from those PARC supports that keeps her motivated to fulfill the organization’s mission of ‘turning disabilities into capabilities’ every day. “We’re in the business of changing lives,” she says. “We hear over and over from families that if it wasn’t for PARC, our family would not have stayed together. Those are the stories that mean the most. That we’re here and help keep a family intact and their legacy going.”
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