HEELS Prep Transitions Online In Response to COVID-19 Pandemic
HEELS Summer Intensive
HEELS Prep (2019)

HEELS Prep, an interdisciplinary collaboration designed to support young adults with intellectual disabilities (ID), has moved to an online format for summer 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic; organizers hope the program will continue to support these individuals as they transition to adulthood.

HEELS Prep, formerly the HEELS Summer Intensive, addresses key areas of the transition to adulthood, including self-management, life skills, career development, mental health, and community safety. In its inaugural year, participants learned through diversified on-campus learning experiences and practical application about the rights, responsibilities, and benefits of adulthood.

Greg Boheler, a second-year master’s student in the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, said the pandemic has disrupted structure and routine in daily life, particularly for those with ID.

“I saw these support structures evaporate in midair in the wake of COVID-19,” Boheler said. “I saw how there’s no structure in an individual’s day; we have the opportunity to make something that can provide some structure.”

For young adults, daily routines often consist of social activities, such as school, work, sports, and participation in various community organizations. HEELS Prep organizers said that in addition to COVID-19 halting these activities, the virus has also tapered support services for young adults with IDs.

Summer 2020 Programming Fosters Community and Resilience Among Participants; Innovation Among Coordinators

The HEELS Prep program, previously a one-week, in-person summer experience, will be delivered over seven weeks beginning the week of June 15. It will be at no cost to participants thanks to the generous, ongoing support from the Oak Foundation, an international nonprofit organization that supports various initiatives which include support of programs that focus on learning differences. The extended timetable will allow for enhancement and reinforcement of skill development and strategies, which will support greater retention of program material.

This year’s programming will be a hybrid of virtual group instruction and one-on-one coaching, facilitated by five graduate students in the Department of Allied Health Sciences’ (DAHS) Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy and Division of Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling. Halie Ellinger ’17 (MS ’20), co-coordinator, hopes that the group and individualized coaching sessions will be able to foster a sense of community and shared experiences.

“Although this pandemic is separating and distancing us, building a sense of community is incredibly important during this time,” Ellinger said. “HEELS Prep offers a platform to support one another and engage in a collective purpose.”

The 2020 programming will also include a new mental health component, which will focus on developing resilience and coping strategies. Julie Duran, a second-year graduate student in the Division of Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling, said COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of mental health.“I am grateful for the opportunity to work with the participants on these important skills,” she said.

Participant Max Van Name, a 2019 alumnus from the inaugural cohort of students, plans to join the summer 2020 cohort alongside five other program alumni. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Van Name has launched an exterior car wash, from which he is donating proceeds to COVID-19 relief efforts. “I want to help,” Van Name said. “I’m donating all of my money for charity for the coronavirus.”

Van Name’s adaptability and spirit of giving back represents what HEELS Prep organizers hope to instill in participants—that while what they can experience stressful events such as the pandemic, they are also responsible, resilient, and creative adults who are capable of responding to adversity.

Benefits of Online Programming for Young Adults with Intellectual Disabilities

Graduate students working with HEELS Prep saw myriad benefits of transitioning to an online platform, having experienced it themselves at the close of the spring semester.

According to program coordinators, the move to an online platform could allow for future hybrid programming with both in-person and online options, an increase in parent involvement, filling service voids, and more time to reinforce curriculum. It also allows for coaching opportunities in the home setting, which provides opportunities for practical application of skills and strategies.

Jacklyn Googins, a second-year master’s student studying occupational therapy and co-coordinator, said she hopes participants come away with increased confidence and self-determination as they pursue their aspirations for adult life.

“I hope they feel valued as community members and recognize the importance of their contributions,” Googins said.

The 2020 cohort will also include four new young adults, for a total of 10 participants. Googins noted that the HEELS Prep program has worked hard to mitigate accessibility barriers to online platforms and support technical literacy skills for the participants. Googins said the online curriculum incorporates visual supports, various methods of communication, and direct instruction related to navigating an online learning space.

“We’re going to be learning alongside the participants,” Googins said. “This is uncharted territory, and there’s a lot to feel out. We’ll have to adapt as we go.”

Dara Chan, the program’s director, said she commends the graduate students’ ability to adapt the program to an expanded online format.

“This required extensive work, which they have done with enthusiasm even while taking their own classes and managing change,” Chan said. “While we will miss the in-person interaction this year, there are so many benefits to the redesigned online program. I hope that we will continue to build on it in future offerings for the potential to reach more families.”

Stephen Hooper, associate dean of medicine and DAHS chair, said he is excited about the program’s malleability to an expanded online format.

“This program is a win-win for all involved,” Hooper said. “The participants certainly have the opportunity to continue to grow and advance in their various skill sets, and our students learn about the program, develop their respective skill sets, and gain new insights into working with individuals with learning differences.”

The HEELS Prep program is part of the HEELS 2 Transition organization, an interdisciplinary collaboration among the UNC School of Medicine’s Department of Allied Health Sciences (DAHS), the Carolina Institute for Developmental DisabilitiesUNC TEACCH Autism Program, and community partner Kidpower, Teenpower, Fullpower, International. Dara Chan, ScD, CRC, is an assistant professor in the Division of Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling. Adela Van Name is the project manager. Stephen Hooper, PhD, has served as DAHS chair since 2013.