By Keith Loria
It was 25 years ago that Joe Wykowski started Community Vision, a Portland-based organization that supports individuals with disabilities to live in their chosen community. Since its beginning, Community Vision has continued to grow and now provides a variety of individualized services and supports, including employment, homeownership, accessibility related loans and matched savings accounts or individual development accounts.
One recent program is the Dream Builders Alliance, aimed at youth with disabilities who were often not given adequate transition services to prepare them for adulthood. This program provides them a chance to connect with their community by accessing local jobs and work-related experiences.
“It was evident that transition services provided by the school district were not connected to the adult world of supports,” says Allison Falleur, administrative coordinator of Dream Builders Alliance. “As a system, we have not been meeting the needs of transition-age youth and young adults. The majority of youth who had just exited high school were spending the day at home, having lost the services provided to them by the school district. Far too many of these individuals lacked supports and, most importantly, the dream to aspire towards employment goals, access services available to adults and set goals for community living.”
The Dream Builders Alliance is an independently funded program designed to step into the gap. The program takes a two-tiered approach: educating parents and families about employment, individualized housing and community building; and providing one-on-one mentoring to youth, teaching them how to set community goals, explore education and employment while building a life that follows their dreams.
“It teaches youth how to enter young adulthood in the driver’s seat of their own lives,” Falleur says. “Our mission is to meet a participant where they are and remain vigilant for signs, both verbal and nonverbal, which indicate preferences and choice.”
The group has served a number of individuals who experience autism and uses a range of communication games, activity-based comprehension activities and are skilled at addressing sensory needs.
In the Beginning
Dream Builders Alliance is a collaborative program of Community Vision, partnering with community nonprofits to serve youth and young adults. The program, which relies heavily on volunteers and mentors who receive small stipends, is funded by a two-year, $80,000 grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust.
It was founded in partnership with Northwest Down Syndrome Association, which included 10 participating families and is now pursuing Think College Oregon as a strategy to include youth in education beyond high school.
“In partnership with FACT Oregon, Dream Builders Alliance has served 14 families within the Portland Metro area,” says Rachel Eaton, VISTA member assigned to Community Vision (and soon-to-be-named Dream Builders Alliance program coordinator). “The mentorship component focuses on community inclusion: pairs meet in the community and engage in activities based on the young adults’ specific interests and goals.”
Since beginning in February of 2013, Dream Builders Alliance has served 25 youth and young adults, with participants experiencing a variety of disabilities.
“The goal is to encourage individuals to follow their dreams and assist them in doing so through one-on-one mentorship sessions, with mentors and program staff,” Eaton says.
Dream Builders Alliance is a grassroots effort to provide empowerment education and community opportunities to youth ages 12-14, as well as transition opportunities to youth ages 16-21.
“We attain post-secondary education and employment outcomes geared towards each individual’s interests and skills,” Eaton says. “We set into motion a participant’s vision for their future, and after cohort graduation, we follow each for three years and remain a resource to help them achieve their goals.”
Additionally, the program’s parent/guardian component provides educational sessions about available resources and services and how to access them. Parents generally serve as the main support for young adults with special needs, and are taught how to responsibly shift the emphasis from guiding a child’s life to supporting the self-realization of their young adult.
“Due to small cohort size, the parent education component has a community-like feel. Parents not only gain information from FACT Oregon and Community Vision presentations, but also from the discussion-like layout,” Eaton adds. “Participating families come to us with a variety of backgrounds and experience, all able to share their journey and provide insight to other families.”
The program works with young adults and their families to ensure success and it has seen a variety of successes from its Dream Builders Alliance youth and young adults.
“Parents have reported increased self-confidence, an interest in post-secondary education and employment, as well as a stronger sense of community,” Eaton says. “We have seen mentor-young adult relationships blossom and continue past cohort graduation.”
Dream Builders Alliance participants have also enrolled in an IDA program, a matched savings account to build assets.
“Many of our young adult participants have increased their ability to express their goals for the future and exhibit increased confidence and self actualization, being given the tools and ongoing support to achieve their goals,” Eaton says. “Parents and guardians express that this process has given them a road map of previously unknown territory. They have shared with us that they feel less alone and now can identify people and resources to be part of the future for their child.”
As much help as they’re providing, Eaton feels the program is still underutilized.
“We would like to get the word out on this free and comprehensive program, so the collaborative can benefit the highest number of families,” she says. “We are interested in community partnerships for mentor recruitment and participant recruitment.”