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.