(Source: Kirkland Patch)

Jeremy Carrigan was born with a developmental disability called Williams Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that often leads those with the condition to rely on full-time caregivers into adulthood.

But thanks in part to Lake Washington School District’s Transition Academy, Carrigan, now 26, has a job, money and independence.

Since 2004, the Academy has helped young adults with developmental disabilities transition from school into the community. After seven years in a facility on Cleveland Street in Redmond, the program recently moved to the Together Center—a collection of social service agencies near the Bella Bottega shopping center.

Richard Haines, one of the program’s founders, has taught students with special needs for 31 years. When he started his career, the kids were taught in segregated schools, where he says they had “no opportunity to be with their non-disabled peers.” Since then, Haines has helped the district make the transition to integrated education. Now all high schools in the district include kids with disabilities.

Yet Haines still felt something was missing. There were few post-high school options except sheltered workshops—another segregated environment.

In 1999, Haines spearheaded a school district task force to address the need for a transition program.  Five years later, the Transition Academy was born. From 12 students the first year, the school has grown to more than 20. The task force chose downtown Redmond because it is centrally located in the district and has a transit center.

The school serves students aged 18 to 21, who typically spend two to three years in the program. The focus is on independence and life skills—how to take public transportation, handle money, and use a computer. Everyone in the program gets job training, and many go on to paying jobs.

“These kids should have the opportunity to have the same kinds of relationships as we do,” Haines said. “They are entitled to a life in the community.”

Haines says it’s important to remember that the kids are people first—their disability is second.

“Even the most significantly disabled person has incredible talents,” he said.

The academy works with King County’s School to Work Program to help the students find jobs where their skills can be used and valued.

There are many success stories. Current student Mark Smith works in the stockroom at REI in Redmond, where Jason Rejniak, the assistant manager, said in an YouTube video that Mark “is dependable, he’s on time, he has a very positive, high-energy attitude.”

Other students work in local grocery stores, restaurants, offices, and schools, including Fred Meyer, Cascade Vista, and Sammamish Montessori in Redmond, and Olive Garden and Office Max in Kirkland.

Businesses say that hiring kids with disabilities has brought them many benefits, including increased teamwork and cooperation among employees, as everyone works together to support the academy students.

The program is eager to build more partnerships.

“We’re here and we’re part of your community,” says Haines. “We’re looking for businesses to open their doors. We’ll work with you.”

The academy also welcomes volunteers, especially to help with outings. They must be very committed, and pass a school district background check.

Perhaps the real measure of the program’s success is the joy it brings to program participants like Jeremy. His smile is huge in a YouTube video

“I just love my work,” he says. “It’s the best job I ever wished for.”

(Source: Kirkland Patch)

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