Moving from the high school years to whatever comes after is stressful for most adolescents, but that transition can pose special challenges for youth with disabilities.

That is why the Progress Center for Independent Living (PCIL), 7521 Madison St., is launching a Youth Transition Program, where students with disabilities can take advantage of the five learning modules, which include job exploration and post-secondary education counseling, workplace readiness training, workplace learning and more.

Courtney Harfmann, the youth transition advocate who directs the new program, said: “Most of these people we will be working with have relied so heavily on their parents and support systems that they are inexperienced at living independently.” 

Through the program, Harfmann said youth learn about the independent living movement and what places like the Progress Center can do for them. 

“Independence doesn’t mean doing everything by yourself. It means having choices, making decisions about how things will be done for yourself,” said Gary Arnold, program director. 

“This module is what separates what PCIL has to offer from the other great programs out there,” said Arnold. “Self-advocacy is empowering young people with disabilities to go out there and advocate for themselves. You’re not going to find that in many transition programs out there today.”

He explained that the Progress Center is a unique place to learn self-advocacy because the center is staffed almost completely by people with disabilities. Director Horacio Esparza is blind. Two of the staff were born with cerebral palsy. Arnold himself stands 4’2″ tall.

“We provide real peer guidance,” said Arnold. “Our consumers learn from other people with disabilities which has inherent value in itself.” 

To enter the Youth Transition Program students must live in Suburban Cook County, have certification that they have a disability, be between 14 and 21 years old, and be enrolled in some sort of education program for youth with special needs, but they cannot be a consumer of a program run by the State of Illinois, like for example the STEP Program.

They can learn about post-secondary education counseling and explore the differences between life in high school and the college experience, what they can expect when they move from the one environment to the other.

Harfmann helps her students think about which path is best for them—a two-year college, a four-year college or a trade school. No matter what path they choose she helps them understand that some services which were available when they were in high school are not always provided by post-secondary schools and how to take responsibility for finding the ones that are.

Students who want to go right into the workforce after graduating from high school can learn how to find housing, manage money, get transportation to and from work and more. Harfmann helps students explore their strengths and weaknesses and teaches them how to create a resume and a cover letter. She will review the history of employment for people with disabilities, and stage mock interviews to give her students practice in how to present themselves. She makes sure they understand what they have to disclose and what they don’t have to share when applying for a job.

Harfmann also asks her students what kinds of work they are interested in doing and then gives them onsite experiences with that kind of work. She is in the process of building relationships with a wide variety of businesses in which her students can “sink their teeth” into the work and find out if it is as good a fit as they had imagined. This could be accomplished through job shadowing, mentoring or internships.

“That’s where I’m excited about using community partners as a resource,” said Arnold. “We have a wealth of opportunity on Madison Street for support of this program as coalition partners. It would be great to have participants in this program gain experience at Ferrara Candy Company or the Brown Cow, at an insurance agency or a bank.”

The center has many programs which they can plug into, including a database which Progress Center is in the process of creating to help their consumers connect with work opportunities.

Arnold wants youth with disabilities to enroll in the program at as young an age as possible so they build a good foundation on which to build success in independent living.

The program is available now. If interested call the Progress Center at 708-209-1500 and ask for transition services.