Young adults with disabilities prepare for the workforce at Fairyland

May 6, 2015

Intellectually and developmentally disabled young adults have few options after they leave high school. In the Bay Area, nearly 60% of these young people are unemployed or don’t make enough to earn a living. In Alameda County, a new program is making an effort to change that.

The Alameda Adult Transition Program invites 30 students who have received a certificate of completion from high school to learn and practice skills for work and independence. The program partners with local businesses and organizations in order to give students experience in industries like retail, customer service, and maintenance. One of the organizations that partners with the program is Children’s Fairyland, a nonprofit theme park for kids in Oakland. 

Jackie Salas, the chief horticulturalist at Fairyland, welcomes the students and prepares them for their first task. She’s responsible for maintaining the ten-acre property. Jackie organizes them and offers encouragement. The 15 students present are helping to prepare the park for crowds of kids later in the week.

There is a very wide variety of abilities and ambitions among the students. A few of the students aren’t able to communicate verbally. Omar Tibayan is one of the more gregarious students in the group.

"I want to work on a people’s ranch,” he says. “And make money!” 

Omar is 20 years old. In addition to the time he spends at Fairyland, he also works at a local CVS, where he cleans and stocks shelves. He says what he really wants is to be a cowboy. 

Kaitlin Rupido is the main teacher for the Alameda Adult Transition Program. Rupido’s job is to help the students make goals for themselves in line with their abilities. She assesses the students and develops individualized programs to meet the students’ needs. Omar, she says, loves working with the animals at Fairyland.

Rupido says that even figuring out how to get the five miles from Alameda High School to Fairyland is good practice for the students. The emphasis is on practical skills and helps students meet their daily needs.

“It’s wonderful that Fairyland has really catered to that,” she says.

Today there’s another option for the students, besides raking. Ben Mason, an assistant teacher helps a group of students work on organizing a large bag of plastic keys. These "magic keys" are used for unlocking the storybook boxes at Fairyland that play audio of different fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Rupido says that this task is a different kind of skill-building. 

“When we assemble the keys, I find it builds strength with their hands and dexterity,” she explains.

Ben May Jr. is one of the students sorting keys. He says the program really helped him gain confidence.

“I got stronger. I became happier and I got stronger. I keep my head up,” he says. 

Whether the students aspire to be manga artists or cowboys, or just want to master public transportation, this transition program offers them real opportunities to gain experience, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. Since its inception, more than 500 students have completed the program. In the most recent class, two of the students have secured paying jobs.

But it’s not all about making money. Like everyone else, these students are just learning to be part of the community.