WACO Project Helps Students and Young Adults With Disabilities Explore Career Options in a Living, Learning Environment

Zack, a 19-year-old Texan, is at a stage in life like most of his fellow high school peers; they are contemplating their future and career options. So, when Zack and his dad learned of the Work and College Opportunity (WACO) project, they welcomed the opportunity for Zack to participate in the five-week residential summer work and college training program held at Texas A&M University for young adults with disabilities aged 18-22.

Zack, WACO project
Zack, attending class during his stay at Texas A&M.

The project launched in 2014, has assisted more than 70 students in the span of five summers, and is funded by federal and state vocational rehabilitation funds.

During their stay, WACO project participants learn to live independently on the campus while socially integrating into the larger Bryan/College Station community. Along with Texas A&M, WACO project partners include the Center on Disability and Development, Brazos Valley Center for Independent Living, and Texas Workforces Solutions-Vocational Rehabilitation Services (TWS-VRS). The WACO project serves customers from several Workforce Solutions areas including Brazos Valley, Capital Area, Central Texas, Deep East Texas, Heart of Texas, Gulf Coast, and Rural Capital.

“We first learned of the WACO project from [TWS-VRS Transition Counselor] Luis Castillo and later Zack’s visual instructor at our high school,” said Zack’s parents, Rick and Kris.

“WACO project is a work and college opportunity where customers can find a purpose, water it, nurture it and watch it grow into something meaningful,” said Castillo. “I knew it would be a great fit for Zack and his parents.”

The WACO project serves teens and young adults with disabilities to help them successfully transition into postsecondary education and employment. Participants attend classes specially designed to build confidence and audit other college classes based on their career interests.

“In my classes I learned how to act professionally, how to speak and what to wear,” said Zack. “I also had a class on self-determination, deciding on what I want to do next [for my career] and not giving up.”

WACO project participants attend classes during the morning. In the afternoon, they travel to their workplaces and receive work-based learning experiences as paid interns.

Zack’s work assignment was at Bryan/College Station Habitat for Humanity ReStore, a non-profit that resells building and home supplies, including furniture and appliances. It was Zack’s first job.

“Getting my first paycheck felt really good. It made me feel like I accomplished something, said Zack. “I helped my co-workers maintain the store and restore the merchandise, making it presentable. I really enjoyed working at ReStore. I had a goal going in, to buy a new TV.  I met that goal and had additional money to buy things that I needed or wanted.”

Each evening after work, students brush up on their independent living and social skills. Activities include preparing evening meals; learning to use public and other transportation options; participating in various recreational and social activities; completing homework assignments; and preparing for the next days’ schedule.

At the end of their five-week stay, students share their overall experience and learned experiences with their family and WACO project staff, who advise students on their performance and long-term goals.

“During his exit interview, WACO project staff noted Zack’s growth, independence and willingness to help others,” said Zack’s dad, Rick. “I saw the same and for us, as parents, we [Zack’s mom Kris and I] realized the need to learn to let go and understand that Zack will survive. The experience was great for everyone involved.”

What Zack liked the most about his experience with the WACO project was the helpfulness of staff. “Everyone was so friendly. If I had a problem I could go to one of the college staff members, [TWS-VRS Transition Counselor] Luis or another TWS-VRS counselor if I needed help right off the bat.”

After graduating high school, Zack plans to attend college.  He’s still researching his choice of schools and major.

Summer Work Program Entering Second Year, Aims to Connect 2,000 Texas Students with Jobs and Soft Skills: Colton Head is Ready

Work experience equips you with certain soft skills such as effective communication, time management, and problem solving, all of which are sought after by employers.

Last year Colton Head learned these soft skills while working at H-E-B in Austin. This year, Colton and other students in Texas will receive paychecks again by participating in Summer Earn and Learn, a program that provides students with disabilities, aged 14-22, with work-readiness training and paid work experience. The program is a partnership between TWC, Texas Workforce Solutions Offices and Texas Workforce Solutions-Vocational Rehabilitation Services (TWS-VRS).

Colton started gaining work experience in the 2017 Summer Earn and Learn program through Workforce Solutions Capital Area. While working at H-E-B, Colton provided customer service, stocked groceries and retrieved carts from the parking lot. Colton said the positive experience he gained motivated him to participate in the 2018 program.

Photo Colton Head
Photo: Colton Head

“H-E-B was my first job, and when I started working, I was nervous. But after a few days, I quickly learned how to complete my job duties,” said Colton. “It was a great experience to learn about working and receiving a paycheck.”

Later this month, Colton will know more about his 2018 employment placement. He hopes the job will relate to his career interest of photography. He recently completed photography and digital imaging classes at Austin Community College. To hone his skills, he’s been volunteering to take photos for family and friends.

“I’m trying to get into the habit of taking my camera with me wherever I go, because my mom constantly stresses the importance of always being ready for your career goals,” said Colton.

Though he knows his summer will be busy with work and photography, Colton is confident he will be successful and cites the support of his mom and TWS-VRS counselors as motivators.

“I just really appreciate people who take the time to help you, to make you feel comfortable,” he said.

Last year, more than 1,500 students participated in Summer Earn and Learn and worked in positions as assistant graphic designers, customer service representatives, peer counselors and others. Small and large businesses who participated in the program include Alamo College in San Antonio, the Clements Boys & Girls Club in Killeen and CVS, H-E-B, and Verizon locations throughout the state.

Workforce Solutions Offices are actively reaching out to students, parents and employers to spread the word about the 2018 Summer Earn and Learn program and encourage participation. Informational efforts include:

For more information about the Summer Earn and Learn program, contact your local Workforce Solutions Office.

A Service Animal Named Makiko Allows Mobility, Assists With Independence in the Workplace

Makiko, a black six-year-old Labrador retriever, is no ordinary pet. According to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Makiko falls under the description of a service animal individually trained to work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. It is because of Makiko that Jessica Naert can fulfill her work activities as a Transition Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor for Texas Workforce Solutions-Vocational Rehabilitation Services in Denton.

Photo: Jessica and Makiko. Photo by LalaLand Photography/Lauren Ferrell
Photo: Jessica and Makiko. Photo by LalaLand Photography/Lauren Ferrell

The ADA and Texas law guarantee the right of people who have disabilities to be accompanied by a trained service animal in all public places. In addition, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for employees who need to use service animals. This workplace requirement allows Makiko to work alongside Naert, which she appreciates.

“Makiko is my first guide and she has changed my life in so many ways,” says Naert. “Makiko is literally the best guide dog I could ever imagine, and she has been such an easy partner when learning and adapting to the guide-dog lifestyle.”

Though Naert first experienced vision loss when she was in the second grade, she was officially diagnosed in the eighth grade. Her vision worsened through college, and in 2012 she was declared legally blind. She then applied to the Guide Dogs for the Blind school and attended training in Boring, Oregon. She graduated with Makiko in 2013.

“As a counselor, I travel multiple times per week to various campuses and meet with high school students with disabilities to help them transition into the workforce. I offer skills training courses and other individualized services, based on the customer’s need,” said Naert. “Makiko brilliantly remembers where we go in each of the schools and allows me to be confident without letting my vision loss affect that.”

For more information about service animals, read our brochure Rights and Responsibilities of People Using Service Animals (En Español).

We also have additional information on our Tips & Tools – About Service Animals webpage.