The Case for Inclusion 2019

Virtual Job Hunting: ‘The Sky’s the Limit’

Editor’s Note: This article includes excerpts from a post on Penn-Mar Human Services’ blog. Read the full blog post on Penn-Mar’s website.

How do you make the best of a bad situation? You adapt creatively.

In the last 10 months, Penn-Mar Human Services’ Customized Employment team has made lemonade out of a sackful of lemons. Call it the sweet success of the team’s Virtual Employment Supports program, launched in response to the upending coronavirus pandemic.

The new program has given men and women with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) in Maryland and Pennsylvania the opportunity to gather and explore career and employment interests online, while engaging with peers to battle social isolation.

“We needed to act quickly to ensure our folks didn’t skip a beat in their employment exploration and discovery process,” said Holly Augustine, Employment Manager for Penn-Mar’s Westminster, Maryland, site. Augustine explains that funding for the program came from Maryland’s “Appendix K” waiver, an emergency waiver submitted to the federal government by the Maryland Developmental Disabilities Administration to unlock funding and regulatory flexibility in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Maryland’s Appendix K waiver enabled Penn-Mar to apply for a Disconnected Youth Grant.

Participants in the virtual supported employment programs include people who were taking part in Penn-Mar’s Carroll and York County Day Programs, which were shuttered due to the pandemic, and those who access the nonprofit’s employment services.

The program centers on groups that are designed to build skills and confidence, explore participants’ talents, and discover business and other opportunities in the community.

“What we’re seeing is changes in attitudes about employment and the possibilities of working in the community, especially during this stressful and uncertain time,” said Penn-Mar Westminster Program Service Manager Kris Froehlich.

“They coach each other on things like how to find a good job or how to handle situations while at work,” Froehlich added. “They help build confidence in one another, and are now saying, ‘We can do it.’”

As for Holly Augustine, she says she hopes Penn-Mar can keep offering the Zoom-based employment program post-COVID as part of Penn-Mar’s overall home and community-based supports, with the help of several prospective grants. However, this will require the flexibilities enabled by Maryland’s Appendix K waiver—initially designed to be temporary—to be made permanent.

Should IDD provider agencies like Penn-Mar get the approval to continue offering virtual supports after the pandemic subsides, the impact will be nothing short of transformational. “The sky’s the limit with what we can do with the tools we’ve adopted, and the passion and dedication our team brings to the table every day.” Froehlich said.