With a hard-earned paycheck in hand, BHMA LIVE member Brian Krutzler breaks out into a wide smile as he poses to mark the moment. Vocational Advisor Melina Garro-Duplisea captures Krutzler’s excitement and is moved by the significance of the achievement herself. As she says, “it is rewarding to see students feel successful when they receive their first paycheck.” Participating in paid work is an important part of becoming independent and it instills in our individuals a sense of self-worth. Every subsequent check bolsters students’ confidence and is a testament to the efforts of BHMA’s Vocation Department. Officially established in the fall of 2017, the Department’s primary goals are for students to explore vocational opportunities, find paid employment suited to their interests and abilities, and feel empowered like Krutzler. In doing this, our individuals are fostering inclusion in the workforce for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Vocation is woven throughout BHMA’s programming, helping students develop job skills in engaging and creative ways. The Two-Year Transition Program lays the foundation—in the first year, students participate in weekly internship rotations at local nonprofits, followed by group music performances at area nursing homes as part of the second-year Music & Human Services seminar. These experiences help our individuals identify where their strengths and interests lie as they practice working as a team and using appropriate social skills. In the LIVE Program, the Vocation Department expands on students’ vocational training in more individualized and in-depth ways through its three track options: art, music, and general vocation. Students can make original works of art, perform gigs with a band, or work in the community—the underlying objective is to provide innovative choices for our individuals to pursue meaningful, paid employment. This customizable approach allows students to grow their independence on their own terms.
Vocation Director Andy Anderson believes our individuals “have a strong desire to prove themselves as contributing members of society and a growing workforce,” an idea that is central to the Department’s efforts to establish general vocation opportunities for students beyond BHMA. Vocation staff members like Garro-Duplisea teach the basics of searching and applying for a job, such as how to write a resume and respond to interview questions, and also strategize with students to find them the most suitable line of work. Going through the pre-vocational training process helps match students to one or more of the thirteen community worksites, places like Serenity Yoga at the South Hadley Commons. Each month, student workers Matt Allen, Jen Barrett, Mario Bonavita, and Stephen Gordon get hands-on experience by helping to maintain the yoga studio. Serenity Yoga Director Michele Lyman calls their service “invaluable to the business,” and enjoys passing on lessons to the students by sharing her expectations as the employer, offering feedback on their performance, and answering any questions they may have. These opportunities help our individuals widen their knowledge base and their sense of accomplishment.
From Ledges Golf Club and TJ Maxx, to Rock Valley Tool and the Eric Carle Museum, BHMA’s students are employed in a variety of businesses around the area. These mutually beneficial partnerships forged by the Vocation Department are of great significance to our program, but they have larger implications as well. Students take pride in knowing they are making important contributions to the community through their services. Perhaps more importantly, however, they are raising visibility, promoting acceptance, and changing perceptions of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Lyman recognizes the power in this, writing, “I am so blessed to be part of BHMA students’ journey toward inclusion in the workforce.” Paid employment propels our individuals to a more independent, fulfilling life, while bringing forth an increasingly equitable society.