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On October 14th, the Westmoreland Employment Coalition and the Transition Council partnered to put on the first Westmoreland Transition and Employment Conference.  Both of these groups consist of employment service providers, advocates, representatives from school districts, county administrative staff and staff from WCSI. When Mindy McMahon, Transition Coordinator at the Intermediate Unit and member of both groups, saw that there was a common focus on getting our consumers employed competitively she suggested the partnership to put on the first of this kind of event. The goal of this conference was to equip consumers specifically in the transitional age range in their journey to find meaningful, competitive employment in the community. Several months of planning went into this as the planning committee wanted to ensure that both successes and ongoing challenges in this area were acknowledged and that resources were given that would help our consumers move forward with their goals.

The morning started with an introduction from County Commissioner Ted Kopas who spoke briefly on the current challenges we face and the need for providers and educators to continue to support families as they navigate through the current changes to our service systems. Ted Kopas also presented an Employment Achievement Award to one of our consumers, Alex Novak. The planning committee reviewed several consumers who had been nominated for this award by their vocational counselors and support coordinators. The planning committee wanted to recognize consumers that have applied themselves to encourage others at the conference.

The morning session concluded and there were break-out sessions during the day in which families and consumers could get resources, engage in discussion with service provider and employers, and even participate in brief interviews with employers.  In the photo to the left, County AE staff Amanda Stewart is moderating a discussion between families and a panel of providers, intake staff from WCSI, education staff, employers and a consumer who is currently employed. The panel was asked questions by Amanda to facilitate discussion about the barriers to getting employed and what resources are there to assist families. Each member of the panel had a unique perspective to share on their processes and eligibility requirements for their services. The panel also took questions from members of the audience.
   
OVR Counselor Janet O’Dell is seen in this photo with several volunteers prior to the break-out sessions in which consumers participated in speed interviewing with employers. Each of the twenty one students was assigned a volunteer “buddy” who helped them going from one interview to the next. Each interview lasted approximately five minutes after which an alarm would go off and they would move onto another interviewer. Students were given constructive feedback and a few even were offered possible job opportunities, per the feedback from Janet O’Dell.
 
The photo below was taken during a session in which a representative from AHEDD, which is a non-profit agency that provides benefits counseling and employment services to people with disabilities. The representative in the photo gave an overview about how people receiving social security and medical assistance benefits can work competitively and retain their benefits. Informational literature was distributed and the audience was given time to ask questions.

The most positive feedback that the planning committee received from consumers was in response to the event’s key note speaker, David Denotaris. David is a nationally known motivational speaker and the executive director of the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. David shared about his personal struggles with his blindness and the pivotal decisions he made at times in his life to get him where he is today. David encouraged the students that they could accomplish their goals regardless of their disabilities as long as they chose not to give into fear but rather focus on the God-given potential that each of them has. David shared how he found good in the midst of circumstances that appeared like a defeat. He summed it up by stating, “I believe my eyes were closed to help others see their own true potential.”
 
The event was attended by ninety people total, twenty one of which were students from local school districts. The planning committee is reviewing all the feedback surveys currently and already in discussion about putting on this conference again in the fall of 2017.

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