Building Opportunities for Success: Criss Cole Builds Confidences with Summer Transition Programming

Authors: Ada Mendoza, Manager of Blindness Skills Training, Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center, Texas Workforce Commission

Keywords: Criss Cole, STAR Program, College Prep, accelerated rehabilitation training, daily living skills, college lifestyle, legislative advocacy, employment lifestyle, paid work experience, leadership, self-reliance

Abstract: The author describes summer programs for legally blind transition students that are offered by the Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center with the Texas Workforce Commission. She also announces exciting changes for the Summer 2024 program at Criss Cole!

Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center (CCRC) staff were livelier than usual during June and July of 2023. Criss Cole was in the midst of hosting two summer group skills training programs for transition age students who are blind: the two-week College Prep Program and the three-week Summer Transition Accelerated Rehabilitation (STAR) Program. Both programs provided real-world opportunities for students to experience life on a college campus and in the workplace. Participants not only learned valuable lessons in assistive technology, orientation and mobility, and career guidance, but they also developed soft skills and adaptive techniques for living a rich and independent life on their own (also see Trae Shaw’s article, Transition Programs at Criss Cole, in the Fall 2022 issue of TX SenseAbilities, which also discusses both the STAR and College Prep programs).

Criss Cole’s College Prep Program created an experience for students aged 16-22 who were exploring college and postsecondary training. Students lived in the Whitis Court dorms on the University of Texas campus, where they practiced daily living skills such as cooking, labeling, and organization skills. They also learned to use healthy study habits to serve them in the next phase of their education. Criss Cole staff created a robust curriculum grounded in four core teaching areas: technology, career guidance, orientation and mobility, and daily living skills targeted toward the college lifestyle. In collaboration with the University of Texas, students were able to attend classes and panels on financial aid. They also learned about accessibility in the classroom and received perspectives from professors and alumni on the essentials of preparing for school as a person with a visual impairment. Additionally, students were able to take a class in the UT School of Social Work, where they practiced note taking, receiving and submitting homework, accessible class participation, and creating a final project as a team. The class focused on legislative advocacy, and the final project was for students to choose an issue being debated by the Texas legislature. They researched the issue, drafted testimony, and delivered the completed testimony before a panel of legislative staffers at the state Capitol, who offered constructive feedback. The College Prep Program offered “college at a glance” as the next step in students’ journeys.

Three students with canes sit facing a panel of three legislative staffers who are sitting behind the bench in a courtroom. The seal of the state of Texas is on the wall behind the bench.

College Prep students providing testimony at the Capitol

The STAR program shifted the focus from school to work and an employment lifestyle. STAR is a unique work-experience program which combines classes in work readiness with paid work experiences hosted by community partners. The STAR program lasted for three weeks, and for the first week, students received training in the fundamentals of getting and keeping a job. This included professional soft skills, marketing their strengths and abilities, building a personal brand, documenting time on the job, and working with social security benefits. In the evenings, students participated in a classroom without walls, attending classes in independent living and activities with the therapeutic recreation team to encourage an employment lifestyle. They also worked on foundational skills such as communication, leadership, self-reliance, and giving and receiving assistance.     

In the following weeks, STAR students were paired with community employers and began a two-week paid work experience. Among the community partners were Austin Sunshine Camp, Casa Marianella, Karla’s Kuisine, Imagine Art, and Spero NeuroRehab. Participants worked from 9 AM until 3 PM alongside a job coach, who served as a resource for learning job tasks and answering questions about employment. As the students progressed in their employment, job coaches stepped back and allowed the STARS to shine!

Both programs provided the youth an opportunity to grow as individuals and make decisions on the direction of their VR programs.  

What’s next for CCRC summer youth programs?

If you are wondering how you and your student can start planning for Summer 2024, look at what CCRC has planned. This summer’s program, called GEAR UP, will combine the best of both programs into a five-week learning opportunity. Not only will students experience college life and classes, but they will be given the opportunity to participate in a paid work training which showcases their strengths and talents. These programs not only teach skills; they offer students who are blind an alternative vision for their adult lives, lives where they are leaders, innovators, helpers, and, most importantly, in charge of their own future. So, let’s GEAR UP for the summer of 2024 and be part of an exciting experience. For more information, please contact the admissions coordinator at Criss Cole Rehabilitation Center at (512) 377-0340 or contact your vocational rehabilitation counselor in your local area.

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