For individuals living with developmental disabilities, finding employment after high school can be an insurmountable challenge.
Many who would like to work struggle to find employers that will hire them or accommodate their needs, so unemployment rates remain high. Businesses and organizations miss out, too, by overlooking a pool of talented, enthusiastic workers.
Mighty Hawks, a student-run Laurier Enactus venture founded in 2017, aims to support individuals living with developmental disabilities by providing free life skills and employment training.
During 10-week sessions, participants are paired with a Laurier student and learn skills ranging from building a resume and budgeting to communication skills. After completing a 10-week session, graduates can apply to take part in a work-readiness program, which places them in a supportive workplace to gain experience, build confidence and earn a paycheck.
Thanks to a partnership with the Waterloo Region District School Board, Mighty Hawks is addressing the difficult transition out of high school, too. Some of the curriculum created for Mighty Hawks – developed in consultation with local agencies including Extend-A-Family Waterloo Region and Adults in Motion – has been incorporated into local high school special education classrooms.
“After students living with developmental disabilities graduate high school, the school supports them for a few months, but they’re really left on their own after that,” says Sam Mello, co-enterprise manager at Mighty Hawks and a fourth-year history and sociology student. “That’s why building a connection with high schools is so important. It’s easier to continue learning these important skills when there isn’t that gap in supports.”
For many, the Mighty Hawks work-readiness program marks the first time they’ve ever received wages. One participant in his late 30s said he couldn’t remember the last time he had worked or volunteered.
Despite having a friendly, outgoing personality, he also struggled with public speaking. Over a year and a half working with Christine Searle, co-enterprise manager at Mighty Hawks and a third-year business student, he built his confidence to the point he could speak in front of a group with ease. Later, he was hired at EarthSuds, Mighty Hawks’ primary partner for the work-readiness program, where he helped create the single-use shampoo, conditioner and body wash tablets the Laurier Enactus venture is known for.
“He was one of the first to be part of our work-readiness program,” says Mello. “When he signed the contract, the smile on his face was unimaginable. I can’t even put it into words. It was one of those moments that makes you feel so proud and connected.”
The COVID-19 pandemic led Mighty Hawks to reimagine how its programs are delivered.
In past years, Mighty Hawks workshops were held in classrooms on Laurier’s Waterloo campus. While participants primarily worked individually with a Laurier student, there were also high-energy group activities. After the COVID-19 pandemic forced most of Laurier’s operations online, Mighty Hawks had to reimagine its programs. Student volunteers began meeting with participants they’d been matched with over Zoom, but group calls were also offered each week to go over material and give participants – many of whom have been isolated during the pandemic – a chance to connect.
One benefit of moving online was that Mighty Hawks participants felt more comfortable reaching out to their Laurier partner outside of one-on-one sessions. One participant who was laid off during the pandemic asked for help updating his resume, as well as searching for and applying for jobs. Thanks to help from Mighty Hawks, he was able to find a full-time job.
Many long-lasting friendships, including some of Mello’s closest, began at Mighty Hawks. Some participants and volunteers are also involved with Best Buddies Laurier, a student-run club aimed at building friendships between Laurier students and individuals living with developmental disabilities in the community.
This year, Mighty Hawks has plans to expand beyond Laurier. Mello and Searle have been working closely with the Waterloo Region District School Board to establish clubs in high schools. During the summer, they will train high school students on an adapted curriculum so the students can work with special education students in their schools. Mighty Hawks plans to pilot the project, tentatively called Fly High, at two schools beginning in September. If the project is successful, the hope is to expand to another 16 schools.
“We work with such talented and inspiring participants,” says Searle. “They’re learning so much, they have so much potential and it’s incredible to see when they’re given the opportunity to tap into that.”
Mighty Hawks is seeking to expand its work-readiness program to include new businesses. If your business is interested, email firstname.lastname@example.org.