Katie Ellington/News Devon Godwin scoops mashed potatoes at Bob Evans in Mount Vernon. Godwin is working at the restaurant as part of the Summer Youth Work Experience program run by Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities.
Katie Ellington/News
Devon Godwin scoops mashed potatoes at Bob Evans in Mount Vernon. Godwin is working at the restaurant as part of the Summer Youth Work Experience program run by Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities.

MOUNT VERNON — Five days a week, Devon Godwin puts on his uniform, grabs his hat and heads to Bob Evans. When he arrives, he saunters back to the kitchen to measure out servings of meat and mashed potatoes, butter biscuits and load up the dishwasher. Sometimes, he helps clean up the parking lot or busses tables.

The tasks he performs may seem unexciting to some, but Devon enjoys the routine. Like many individuals with Asperger syndrome, he thrives on structure.

“I like dishwashing,” said Devon. “Putting plates and the silverwares … forks and spoons and knives.”

“He’s very sweet,” said Marcy Pilton, general manager of the Mount Vernon Bob Evans restaurant. “He seems eager to learn and he’s very pleasant. Everybody likes him. He’s a good worker.”

Devon, who graduated from East Knox High School in May, is part of the Summer Youth Work Experience Program run by Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities. OOD partners with the Knox County Board of Developmental Disabilities and local employers to help students ages 14 through 21 with a disability explore careers and find job placements.

“Summer Youth Work Experiences help students learn about the merits of different jobs,” said Kevin Miller, director of Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities. “The students are supported in real-world experiences that help them plan for their future.”

In the three-week career exploration program, youth spend a week learning employability skills such as how to fill out an application, write a resume and work in teams. Then they spend two weeks touring local businesses, shadowing employees and asking questions about the job.

After successfully completing the career exploration program, they can participate in the work experience program, which offers a five-week, part-time job placement. This year, participants could choose to work at one of 13 businesses, including restaurants, retail establishments and hotels.

Programs that prepare people for the work force are especially important for individuals with disabilities, who are less likely to find employment or continue their education after high school. According to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, only 23.9 percent of Americans ages 16 and up who have disabilities were employed in 2017, compared with 67.1 percent of people with no disability. Ohio has a slightly higher percentage, with 36.9 percent of individuals with disabilities employed.

“We have seen our community-based employment numbers grow recently and the summer youth programming is a big part of that growth,” said Andrew Taylor, service and support administration director at the Knox County Board of Developmental Disabilities.

While there are no exact figures on the percentage of program participants who go on to work permanent jobs, Taylor said that the total number of teens and adults served by the board who are working in the community has risen from 28 people to 85.

A major benefit of the program is that it enables students to learn in a patient, supportive environment so that they can ultimately work long term jobs with independence.

“We find that those youth (who participate in the program) are getting permanent jobs as soon as they graduate,” said Bobbi Kirch, employment navigator for the Knox County Board of Developmental Disabilities. “They’ve developed all these great work habits through these summer programs and volunteer work and then they’re ready for it.”

For many students in the program, the benefits extend beyond just job support.

“I’ll hear so many parents say, ‘Oh my gosh, they act so mature now. They just seem to get along with people better,’” added Kirch. “Being in a different environment, they’re learning all those work skills but they’re also learning all those interpersonal skills that we all need… They’re making friends, they’re doing stuff with people outside of work. It’s social engagement.”

Devon’s mother, Rebecca, agrees.

“When Devon was young, he had so many behavioral issues and his speech was delayed real bad… I didn’t think that he’d ever sit down and have a real conversation,” she said. “Now that he’s out in the workforce and meeting new people, I think he’s become more social.”

Devon has also become more responsible and willing to help out around the house.

“He’ll take the garbage out, he’ll help load the dishwasher, he’ll help cook. He really likes to help cook,” said Rebecca.

When 17-year-old Anna Emmelheinz isn’t writing fan fiction, crafting whimsical costumes for live action role play or hiking the Appalachian Trail, she is working at the Public Library of Mount Vernon and Knox County, her summer youth job placement.

She’s in charge of putting away books and movies that have been returned to the library, as well as dusting and tidying up the shelves.

“I’m kind of a Jack-of-all-trades… or a Jackette,” she joked.

Cassandra Peters, assistant director at the library, noted that the tasks Anna is assigned are the same she’d give any teenage employee.

“Just because you have a disability doesn’t mean there aren’t incredibly useful things you can still do,” said Peters. “We really like having her here. It’s been a pleasure so far.”

This is Anna’s second year in the work experience program. During that time, she’s gained numerous job skills. Some are as simple as waking up early and dressing professionally. Others took more effort to cultivate.

Anna has autism spectrum disorder and severe anxiety. Before participating in the program, she had trouble managing her anxiety and didn’t know how to communicate what kind of support she needs from potential employers. With help from her job coach, she’s learned to take breaks when she starts to feel overwhelmed. She’s also improved her ability to speak on behalf of herself and others.

“I want to be able to be a leader and advocate for myself but also for others with disabilities and other minorities too but especially those with disabilities,” said Anna, while talking about a leadership conference she’ll be attending next month.

Students in the program are paired with a job coach who remains with them through the application process, works with them directly during the first few days on-the-job and continues to check in with both the student and employer to offer guidance and support.

“It’s the sort of thing I could do as a parent, but no employer is going to want a parent involved. They’re going to say, ‘That’s a helicopter parent, I don’t even want that employee,” said Anna’s mother, Jill. “A job coach can do that because everyone understands it’s to make the whole situation effective.”

Students can be in the summer youth program until they graduate high school. Some repeat the program for multiple years, while others end up getting hired by their job placement employer. After graduating, both OOD and the county board for developmental disabilities provide assistance with permanent job preparation and placement. These services are crucial not only for the individuals served, but also the families doing their best to prepare them for adulthood.

“It’s hard enough to raise someone with developmental disabilities,” said Rebecca. “It’s nice to know that there are people out there helping (Devon) and other people get jobs and stay on task with what their goals are.”

After finishing his five weeks at Bob Evans, Devon and his family will continue working with the county board to secure a long term job placement. He hopes to work in either food service or retail. His mother is confident he’ll succeed.

“He’s a really good worker,” she said. “He’ll do anything you ask him to, you just might have to repeat the steps every once and awhile.”

Anna will start her senior year of high school in the fall. After graduation, she plans to enroll at Hocking College and earn a degree in parks and museum education. Her goal is to become a park ranger.

“I like the way that (park rangers) are able to connect with people, but they’re also able to connect with the outdoors,” she said.

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Katie Ellington: 740-397-5333 or katie@mountvernonnews.com and on Twitter, @kt_ellington