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NextStep Participants Gain Competitive Employment, Complete Pilot Program

Individuals with Autism Thriving with Employment, Communication, and Social Goals

Marianna, Florida (April 22, 2022) — All six NextStep at Endeavor Academy participants are competitively employed in positions earning equal payment in jobs that will continue beyond their recently completed 12-week pilot program.

Participants, ages 21-27, worked for various employers, including two at Catalyst Fabric Solutions in Marianna, assisting with web-to-textile fulfillment manufacturing, and another at Hands and Hearts for Horses, a premier accredited therapeutic horseback riding center in Georgia. Two had never held a job before.

NextStep is being launched by the Jackson County Board of County Commissioners and Endeavor Forward, Inc., a nonprofit organization. NextStep at Endeavor Academy is part of the 1200-acre Endeavor Park mixed-use development at the former Dozier School for Boys in Marianna. NextStep’s pilot program ran from late January to April while the site was under construction. 

“NextStep at Endeavor Academy offers high-caliber services to our local community, allowing families to avoid traveling far for these unparalleled autism services,” said Wilanne Daniels, Jackson County administrator. “NextStep is putting Marianna on the map locally, regionally, and nationally. At the same time, we hope NextStep helps attract new employers that need dedicated workers and supports existing businesses with growth plans.”

The participants at Catalyst began working there one day a week and increased their workload to two days a week as they exceeded expectations. The participants inspect suits for tears and hanging threads, make cardboard boxes and turn boots inside out.

Kyle Todd, 23, didn’t do much after graduating from Blountstown High School in 2016 but wanted a purpose and attend college, like his siblings.

Photo Credit: Abby Hallett

“NextStep at Endeavor Academy has shown our family Kyle’s potential and that he can do things we never knew he could. He is contributing to society, and he loves it,” said his mother, Kelly Todd. “Being from a small, rural community, we don’t have much access to services. NextStep has opened a new world for Kyle where he is thriving.”

Now Kyle shows initiative in arranging transportation, pays for some of his expenses, manages his cell phone, and understands he is part of an integral team at his first job, Catalyst, where he turns boots inside out and prepares them to be shipped and makes boxes. His goal is always to finish more boots than his previous shift. Now that the pilot program is over, he wants to continue working at Catalyst.

And Catalyst values Kyle and another participant, Ben Alvarez, said Jim King, Catalyst operations manager and Endeavor Forward board member. King said that Kyle and Ben have quickly learned the skills needed to succeed, demonstrated great attention to detail and expressed a desire for more autonomy in their jobs.

“Staff shortages post-Covid are very real. If I have employees like Kyle and Ben, who want to work, I can start growing a stable workforce,” King said.

NextStep Participants Gain Competitive Employment, Complete Pilot Program: Individuals with Autism Thriving with Employment, Communication, and Social Goals
Photo Credit: Abby Hallett

Catalyst completed Florida State University’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) Autism-Friendly Business Initiative training in late 2021. In addition, NextStep provides businesses with training to work with the participants.

“It is completely easy and seamless,” King said. “The participants make us feel more human and remind us to not take life for granted. I have been blown away at how my staff has welcomed the participants, and we look forward to more students.”

NextStep is coaching the participants to maintain and improve their employment and assisting them with specific goals such as pursuing full-time employment and applying for other jobs.

Goals are individualized for each participant, such as arranging meetings and a job shadowing opportunity for a participant who wants to be an accountant with an autistic person in that field.

Participants also took classes as part of the Learn4Independence curriculum about employment and making connections. Two took in-person classes in Marianna and the others, some of whom live in Tallahassee and needed less support, took virtual classes. Other accomplishments:

  • They engaged in a volunteer activity with Backpacks for Kids and packed 325 backpacks full of food for children experiencing food insecurity during Spring Break.
  • Four participants who did not drive and did not know how to use public transportation can now schedule public transportation themselves.
  • Participants spontaneously greet each other and ask each other about their weekends. NextStep trained the participants on “soft skills,” such as thinking of others and being team players. The two participants who took in-person classes gave presentations on the importance of soft skills at their workplaces.
  • The participants who attended virtual classes decided on their own to meet for lunch on the weekends.
  • The employers are training to encourage autonomy and independence in the participants’ work environments. NextStep encourages the businesses to allow the individuals the opportunity to make mistakes and make their own choices.
  • Parents engaged in monthly seminars to assist their adult children in greater independence. One mother mentioned she never thought she would see her son go off to work.

“The participants made meaningful gains in ways that will help them find even more autonomy,” said NextStep’s Director Tammy Dasher. “I’m most excited by the participants’ spontaneous desires to connect and stretch their skills at independence on their own. I am so proud of their accomplishments, especially in such a short amount of time.”

Interested NextStep program applicants, families, and employers should email [email protected] or call (850) 633-7146.

About NextStep at Endeavor Academy

NextStep at Endeavor Academy is launched by the Jackson County Board of County Commissioners and Endeavor Forward, Inc. This Florida-based not-for-profit supports the development and operations of an autism transition, employment, and residential program as part of an inclusive community where the benefits of educating and employing individuals with autism are broadly understood, supported, and valued. NextStep at Endeavor Academy will prepare individuals with autism for transition beyond secondary school by providing instruction in employment and independent living skills. Future phases include residential living opportunities and community-wide engagement. Visit www.nextstepatendeavor.org.

Alicia Trautwein is an Autism advocate, writer, motivational speaker, and dedicated mom of four. Alicia’s desire to advocate for Autism comes from her own autism diagnosis and that of her three children, niece, and brother. Her life’s mission is to educate on autism acceptance and change the world for future generations of autistic individuals.

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