Peer Communities Prepare Students with Special Needs for Life and Employment after Graduation

Article excerpt

Picture yourself as a young adult finishing high school, preparing to take your next steps in the world. What opportunities await you? Which college or vocational program will you consider in order to continue learning and developing the skills necessary for a responsible adult life? High school graduation also marks a special milestone in the lives of young people with special needs, yet it can be a challenge for these individuals to find community programs that offer a college-like experience and meet the needs of developmentally disabled "emerging adults."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

By age 21, the range of support for individuals with develop-mental disabilities found in the public school system comes to an end. At a time when their peers are embarking on an exciting yet challenging college experience, there can be very little for young adults with special needs to look forward to. Most of these individuals will not be prepared to live independently and will find themselves at home with Mom and Dad, relying on their parents to create a circle of friends to keep them stimulated and locate meaningful activities to occupy their days. And while group homes allow young adults to live apart from their family as college does, these residential situations rarely offer true peer to peer learning. Options for continuing education, vocational exploration and genuine social relations are often less plentiful than parents might hope.

Fortunately, there are three Youth Guidance communities that are part of Camphill in North America (www.camphill.org) that recognize the gap in educational opportunities and choice of work for young adults with special needs. Camphill's residential programs at Camphill Soltane, Camphill Community Triform and the Transition Program at Beaver Farm (a part of Camphill Special School in Pennsylvania) offer supportive college-like experiences consciously tailored to the needs and special life tasks of the emerging young adult, including those diagnosed with Down syndrome, autism, Fragile X and cerebral palsy.

These lifesharing communities, where individuals with special needs ("residents") live together with residential volunteers ("coworkers"), follow a model of care which distinguishes all 100 Camphill communities worldwide. The model first emerged in Scotland over 70 years ago and came to the United States in the 1960s. In North America, Camphill communities can be found in New York, Pennsylvania, California, Minnesota, Vermont and Missouri as well as in British Columbia and Ontario.

"The question for every adolescent, with or without intellectual disabilities, is how to go from depending on a teacher for guidance to being self-guided," explains Guy Alma, Director of the Transition Program at Beaver Farm in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania. When individuals with special needs move directly from the public education system into the support offered by adult social services, this interim step is often missing. "Youth Guidance gives young adults the supportive structure they need to start making healthy choices for themselves in whatever area of life they are ready to explore," says Alma. "Whether it's trying out different sorts of career avenues, learning how to be mentored in a job placement or simply mastering the skill of self-dressing."

Tim Paholak, President of Triform Camphill Community in Hudson, New York, believes Youth Guidance makes sense because it addresses a critical stage of the human life cycle. "There's a real window of opportunity between ages 18 to 30 to help young people make important steps they couldn't consider doing when they were younger. It's a time when people can take big strides in relation to themselves, the world and to nature. They can emerge from this process as real citizens of the planet."

Three Key Elements for Success

The team of coworkers and residents that shape the day-to-day activities at Camphill Youth Guidance communities point to three key elements of their success. …