IDEAL students take their skills, dreams to the work force

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When Taegan Martin walks through the door of the High Hopes Development Center in Franklin, Tennessee, she isn’t merely entering her workplace to work a shift at its preschool, which serves children with and without intellectual and developmental disabilities.

What she is doing symbolizes something much greater.

It symbolizes hope … and a dream come true.

Martin, 28, is a 2016 graduate of Lipscomb’s IDEAL (Igniting the Dream of Education and Access) program, a two-year certificate program that provides education and workplace training to students with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities.

Launched in January 2014 by Lipscomb’s College of Education, the IDEAL program includes academic and skill-building classes, exercise sessions, daily internships, leisure time and a daily study period that prepares students like Martin for the work world. As IDEAL’s third cohort completed its career exploration studies certificate on Friday, May 5, these alumni are already making an impact on the community through the jobs they have secured following their studies at Lipscomb.

Working at High Hopes is a homecoming for Martin, who was a student there as a toddler. Now, Martin is giving back to the place that nurtured her. For the past year, Martin has worked as a floater, assigned to one classroom but offering an extra set of hands to teachers in other rooms. She also relieves teachers during breaks and helps prepare materials for use in the classrooms.

“God’s hands are all over this. I love working here. I love to see how it has changed since I went here,” says Martin. “I want the kids to see me and to know that they can do it to.”

IDEAL_Work_taegan2High Hopes serves nearly 120 children age six-weeks through PreK each year by providing inclusive education, allowing students with special needs to learn alongside typically developing peers.

“Taegan is the first student we have had come back. It has been a wonderful experience for everyone,” said Melanie Anderson, director of educational services at High Hopes. “I can’t say enough good things about Taegan and her commitment to taking care of these children. It’s not just about the fact that Taegan has a job. It’s also about giving back because Taegan knows what High Hopes did for her. Now she is giving back to other children.”

“It’s also encouraging for families here to see what Taegan has accomplished and that people with disabilities can have jobs and make an impact on others.” 

Being part of the IDEAL program is what prepared Martin for her job, she says.

“IDEAL helped me. I got to take classes for credit and I took IDEAL classes. I am using those skills I learned,” she says.

Joanna Wagner, IDEAL program manager for off-campus job development, says Martin’s job at High Hopes is an example of the outcome program administrators want for all of its students. She meets with Nashville-area organizations to find internship and job opportunities for IDEAL students while also working with students to prepare them for the workplace.

“Taegan had a personal goal to do what she is doing now. She knew what an asset she can be to others,” says Wagner. “The world is changing, and we are seeing more inclusive environments. When I approach companies about opportunities to work with our students as they develop their work skills and enter the work force, I get the immediate reaction of ‘I think that would be a great fit.’ Our students have a great desire to contribute to the world around them, and they want to show others that they can do this.”

Once Wagner identifies an organization that may be a good fit, she goes on a site visit to familiarize herself with the daily operations and to look for tasks that the student can perform to contribute to its daily operation. She has a keen eye for “job carving” as she calls it — “taking bits and pieces of things around the office that these students can do to make everyone’s lives easier,” she says.

The IDEAL program now has three cohorts of students who have completed their certificates in career exploration studies and are entering the workforce.

IDEAL_Work_connor1Conner Mirt, 25, who also completed his studies at Lipscomb in May 2016, brings an infectious smile to customers who visit The Well Coffeehouse in Brentwood, Tennessee. Mirt, who has been part of the team since last summer, works two days a week stocking the coffee cart among other responsibilities.

“I really like working at The Well,” says Mirt, who works as a greeter with the Nashville Predators during the season. “I have gotten much better in my work since I started working there. I like my manager and I feel comfortable asking her questions. There are some customers who I see all the time and that makes me happy.”

Maddie Nooner, manager of The Well Coffeehouse’s Brentwood location, says Mirt has had a positive impact on business.

“We are so excited to have Conner as part of our team,” she says. “Having him here fits with our mission to make a difference in people’s lives. People love Conner. He has helped us reach out to Nashville, and our community here has really taken to him.”

And Mirt loves his job.

“I feel very excited and proud of myself for having a job,” he beams. “I like doing something on my own. It is important for me to have a job because I like to help other people and give back.”

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Zach Sutton, 23, a member of the third IDEAL cohort who graduated in May, has worked three days a week in the bindery at Fidelity Offset, Inc., a commercial printer in Nashville, Tennessee, since December. Sutton is responsible for shipping business cards, printing labels, shipping online orders and helping others get their work done in addition to other printing related tasks.

Sutton, who lives independently in an apartment at Friendship House since October, wanted to find a job close to his home and to Lipscomb. He learned about Fidelity during a job shadowing field trip.

“We got to see the whole printing press, and I thought it was fascinating because printing is my family’s business,” Sutton remembers. “I thought it was so awesome and then (Fidelity) said they wanted to have one of our (IDEAL) students work for them, and they thought I was the perfect candidate.”

He says his father, grandmother and uncle have all worked in the printing business at several local companies, so it was an industry he grew up being around.

“What I love most about my job is that it’s fast-paced and I like all my coworkers,” says Sutton. “Through the IDEAL program I’ve learned so much about how to get a job and about living, as far as budgeting, social skills and finances.”

The skills that the IDEAL students are learning are evident in the workplace as they interact with coworkers and carry out their responsibilities.

IDEAL_Work_zach“You can really tell that the application of what Zach has learned within the IDEAL program is being put into action on a daily basis,” says Audrey Zebley, client relations at Fidelity Offset. “From the first time he came to Fidelity for the interview process to now, the questions that he has been prepared to ask really help educate them on what to expect and its been a seamless transition to get Zach here and trained and into production.”

“Zach is very goal-oriented and you can tell he has a sense of pride with completion and has a very positive attitude, and we really appreciate that. We strive every day to be good stewards of our time and to impact people in a positive way, employees, vendors and anyone we come into contact with, so to have him on our team has been seamless.”

Martin says she would encourage others with disabilities to not give up on their dream of college or of pursuing a job.

“I would tell them that college is a great experience and to get involved on campus,” she says. “I would tell my IDEAL friends to keep doing what they’re passionate about and to keep studying and they’ll do what they want to accomplish.”

Mirt encourages his peers to work hard.

IDEAL_Work_connor2“If you work hard and stay focused, you can get a job that you love,” he says. “I have learned to be independent from being in IDEAL. I walked around campus to classes on my own, and I have a job in the community where I work on my own. Being independent is very important to me.”

Seeing IDEAL alumni happy and thriving in their jobs is affirmation that Lipscomb’s program is accomplishing its mission.

“Being able to see the contributions these students have made on campus in their work there and now in their ‘real-world’ experience, is rewarding,” says Wagner. “To see them thinking past college is amazing. They know how to do it. Independence is always on our minds as we are training them in the classes they take, the experiences they have with intern and externships, and in the mentoring they receive from their peers and faculty.”

It’s also on the minds of the parents. For the families of these students, the IDEAL program has given students like Mirt, Martin and Zach, not only a college experience, but also the independence and skills to navigate the workplace and life.

“I don’t know where to begin to tell you how helpful the IDEAL program is and how much it has impacted Taegan,” says Miki Peek, Martin’s mother. “It has given hope to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities that they can have some of the same experiences as other young adults.”

“It’s such a cool thing to see Taegan in the workplace,” she continues. “Her heart is at High Hopes. She always said that she wanted to be able to give back someday. It’s so rewarding as a mom to see her achieve that. She inspires me.”

Mirt’s mother says her son’s confidence has grown tremendously through the IDEAL program and on the job.

“I can’t say enough good things about the IDEAL program,” says Deb Mirt. “The program has helped him grow in confidence and in exposure to the college experience and job development. It’s great to see all of that come together and to see him in the workplace. The IDEAL program is a God-sent, dream-come-true.”

As of press time other IDEAL graduates are employed by various Nashville-area organizations including Lipscomb University, Fleet Feet and the Discovery Center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

For more information about the IDEAL program, click here. If you would like additional information about how to businesses can partner with the IDEAL program, email Joanna Wagner.