Young adults from the Triangle with intellectual disabilities experienced an inaugural week-long skills camp in July tailored to support them as they transition to adulthood thanks to an interdisciplinary University collaboration called the Higher Education, Employment, Living Success (HEELS UP) Summer Intensive.

Lucia Romano participates in HEELS UP
Lucia Romano participates in HEELS UP

The program is part of the recently established HEELS 2 Transition organization, an interdisciplinary collaboration among the UNC School of Medicine’s Department of Allied Health Sciences, the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, UNC TEACCH Autism Program, and the School of Education.

The intensive program focused on five important skill areas: career exploration, self-management, goal setting, independent living skills, and community safety. Participants learned practical strategies in each area through interactive role-play activities and discussions to help them successfully navigate the rights, responsibilities, and benefits of adult life.

Over the course of the week, 10 participants engaged in learning activities with graduate students from the Division of Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling and the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. Participants practiced skills involved in cooking and kitchen safety, laundry, using a planner, job searching, and effectively responding to emergencies.

Stephen R. Hooper, associate dean and chair of the DAHS, said these types of learning intensives are important for young adults as they move into young adulthood.

“All adolescents need to learn these skills,” Hooper said. “Some need additional supports to move their development forward. […] HEELS UP provides one mechanism for making this happen, and I am excited to see how his program will mature and become even more impactful in the coming years.”

Jake Gerber, a participant and part-time employee at the Purple Bowl in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, spends his workday cleaning tables, preparing food, and restocking items. During the program, he said he learned about future careers and aspires to be an athletic equipment manager.

“Ever since I can remember, I have had an interest in sports,” Gerber said. “I learned this week that I need more experience in cleaning sports equipment, setting up for drills, and fixing equipment,” he said. “I hope I can continue to apply what I learned here toward my future goals, even if they change.”

About the Week

The week culminated in final presentations from students about their strengths, interests, and goals in front of an audience of their families, University faculty and staff, and other supporters. Participants exhibited confidence and excitement about taking the next steps toward their adult life aspirations, empowered with the skills and strategies they learned during the week.

Participant Lucia Romano, who has worked at Weaver Street Market and Harris Teeter, said she learned how to look professional and how to practice interviewing. Lucia hopes to become a professional dancer. “Ever since I can remember, I have been interested in performing in front of a crowd,” Lucia said. “I hope to continue applying what I learned here.”

Lucia’s mother, Maria Romano, said the week challenged her to think about ways their family can help Lucia become more independent.

“I think one of the living skills that Lucia learned is that being an adult is hard and requires help,” Maria said. “This was great.”

Dara Chan, program director and assistant professor in the Division of Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling, said the interdisciplinary nature of the program allowed for integration expertise from departments and units across the University, along with a community partner, Full Power.

“Faculty and graduate students from each area were involved in developing curriculum, materials, and program implementation,” Chan said. “It took months of planning, but it was well worth it. I think everyone involved gained from the program week.”

One parent noted their child had gained confidence to take more responsibility in his life, such as setting reminders on his phone without an adult prompt. Parents also reported gains, such as increased confidence, independence, and enhanced social interactions.

Student Perspective

Halie Ellinger, a second-year occupational therapy student, volunteered to help with the program. She said there is an immense need for post-secondary services, particularly for young adults.

“As a future health care practitioner who’s passionate about working with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, I’m eager to take these lessons with me into clinical practice,” Ellinger said. “It’s an important step in the University’s commitment toward inclusion.”

Multiple students with the Division of Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling also volunteered during the week. First-year student Julie Doran said she learned more about the importance of interdisciplinary teams.

“This program is really a great example of how practitioners from different fields can work together to create better outcomes for the people they are serving. This experience also really solidified my interest in vocational rehabilitation,” Doran said.

Osly Galobardi, a second-year student enrolled in the same graduate program as Doran, said she learned how her courses in career counseling applied in a real-world setting. Galobardi and Chan will present a talk on the HEELS UP program at the National Council on Rehabilitation Education conference this fall.

“What I enjoyed the most was seeing how quickly the participants applied the skills they gained each day and the creation of new friendships,” Galobardi said. “They had to learn to adapt, but most importantly, adapt together.”

In fact, two program participants had already made plans to go to bowling and to the movies at the end of their week together.

“To me, making these social connections was one of the significant markers of success,” Chan said.

Private philanthropic support from the nonprofit Oak Foundation, provided funds for the week-long experience. The Lee Family Foundation, through the UNC Public Policy and Campus Y Social Innovation fund, also provided financial support. The program hopes to expand in 2020.

Dara Chan, ScD, CRC, focuses her research on community integration and resources for people with developmental and psychiatric disabilities. Its rehabilitation counseling program, led by Eileen Burker, PhD, CRC, is ranked #9 in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report. The Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy is led by Nancy Bagatell, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA; its program in occupational therapy is ranked ninth according to U.S. News. Stephen Hooper, PhD, has served as DAHS chair since 2013.