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Program for helping students transition celebrates first graduation

During the commencement ceremony of the PATHSS program, students gave presentations about themselves and their involvement.
During the commencement ceremony of the PATHSS program, students gave presentations about themselves and their involvement.

Project Achieve for Transitioning High School Students (PATHSS) celebrated its very first graduating class with a commencement ceremony last Thursday. 

PATHSS is a Chapel Hill-based program dedicated to helping high school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities transition to the adult world. The program congratulated two graduates, Brian O’Donnell and Brittany Newby, closing out its first active year. It also recognized its two remaining students, Jake Gerber and Hannah Barlow, at the commencement. 

PATHSS provides students in their final two years of high school with real-world experiences to help them develop the necessary working and social skills to carry them through their post-high school years. The program exposes them to the working environment at sites around UNC and teaches essential social skills by taking them around the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community, showing them how to be independent and live on their own. UNC sites where the students have worked include Davis Library, Top of Lenoir, UNC Student Stores warehouse and UNC Facilities services human resources. 

Dana Hanson-Baldauf, PATHSS program coordinator and teacher, said she loved seeing the students at the workplaces and watching their relationships with their employers grow this past year. She said the employers were able to witness the students’ hard work and were their biggest cheerleaders. She said she is optimistic about the program’s future and hopes to impact as many students as possible. 

“I’m very proud of these kids," Hanson-Baldauf said. "It’s not perfect. We have a lot of room to grow.”

The program began about four years ago when the Special Needs Advisory Council with Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools began looking for ways to help high school students adapt to the community and workplace. Together, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools worked alongside UNC, community members and parents to bring their efforts to fruition. 

Hanson-Baldauf researched the benefits of integrated employment alongside Meredith Weiss, senior associate vice chancellor for business and administration at UNC, when the program was just getting started. She said they found the employment of special needs employees benefits not only the employees themselves but also the businesses they work for. She said while employees build working skills and maximize their individual potential, businesses benefit in turn by receiving dependable, productive workers as well as the strong public support that exists for diverse employment.

“Whenever we have the opportunity to become more diverse and inclusive, everybody benefits,” Weiss said.

Weiss said the unemployment rate for special needs workers is 90%, but transitional and externship programs like PATHSS have a chance to change that. 

After graduation, Newby said she plans to go to college and fulfill her dream of living on her own. O'Donnell said he plans to continue working and volunteering at various locations around UNC. He also hopes to live on his own, he said, in an apartment with friends.

Newby’s sister said she believes PATHSS has made a big difference in her sister’s life.

“This program gave her the opportunity to have independence so she can make it on her own. So we are excited. She really wants to be on her own,” she said. “I love the program because it helps build her self-esteem.”

Deb Zuver, the director of advocacy initiatives at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, said she is optimistic about PATHSS’ success and believes communities will begin developing more programs like it in the near future. She turned to the four students during the ceremony and congratulated them on their hard work, addressing them as “pioneers.” 

“This is so cool because this is a reality now,” said Sherron Leplin, the director of Exceptional Children’s Services with Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. 

“It’s been a dream for many years.”

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