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HEELS Prep, an interdisciplinary collaboration designed to support young adults with intellectual disabilities, concluded seven weeks of online programming in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through weekly virtual group classes and individual coaching sessions, HEELS Prep addressed key areas of the transition to adulthood, including self-management, life skills, career development, mental health, and community safety. It offered diversified learning experiences and practical application of the rights, responsibilities, and benefits of adulthood.

HEELS Prep Participant, Lucia Romano, at her workstation for online classes

Dara Chan, program director, noted the significant role of graduate students to the program’s success as it moved online from in-person programming.

“We have an incredible team, and in this year’s summer program our graduate students really shined,” Chan said. “They took the lead with support and direction from our instructors and staff to quickly transform our program. As coaches, they provided valuable support to our participants to make what they were learning in their classes more meaningful in their day-to-day lives.”

Jacklyn Googins, a second-year master’s student studying occupational therapy, said program participants showcased resilience and adaptability.

“It was uncharted territory, but it also opened up new modalities for communication,” Googins said. “All of the participants developed the technical skills needed to meaningfully access the Zoom platform and express their ideas in a variety of ways.”

Adela Van Name, the project manager and mother of a HEELS Prep participant, said bringing the program’s lessons into the home environment via video allowed for continued support from family members.

“The families were gracious in letting us come in,” Van Name said. Depending on participants’ goals, tasks often involved cleaning, organizing, grooming, and cooking.

Julie Doran, a second-year student in the Division of Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling, said each participant worked one on one with a goals and career coach.

“The concepts really come to life when it’s translated to their everyday experience,” Doran said. An interdisciplinary team of students and staff met weekly with each other to offer varying perspectives on program initiatives. According to Van Name, this also allowed for individualized modifications for the lessons and identifying gaps in service.

“It really allowed for us to get creative and see things from a different way than might have been our first instinct,” Doran said.

Co-coordinator Halie Ellinger (’20 MS OT), said this year’s participants brought excitement and dedication to the program. “They really made the most of the virtual format and truly made the sessions feel engaging and collaborative,” Ellinger said.

Chan credited Ellinger with creating a YouTube channel midway through the program in order to create video tutorials to reinforce the living skills and strategies that participants learned. Participants also shared their own video tutorials on the platform.

This year’s 10 participants included six program alumni from the inaugural year. Van Name said both returning and new parents were impressed by the participant’s increased sense of purpose and self-determination.

Googins said HEELS Prep encourages a self-directed model of learning, which emphasizes the ability of adults to function well when they direct their life, their goals, and have support. “The program involved the participants teaching each other and in many cases, the instructors learning from them,” she said. At the conclusion of the program, participants self-reported increased feelings of confidence in each of the key areas of adulthood.

The HEELS Prep team is exploring a fall 2020 program in order to ensure opportunities for continued learning and support for program participants. “There is definitely a huge need for adult services that extend beyond high school,” Googins said. “Often, they drop off.”

Van Name said the online experience has provided insight as to how the program can move forward, perhaps with a hybrid version that would combine online and in-person experience once the program is able to proceed with in-person experiences.

Despite the online platform, Googins said friendships flourished online.

“It’s so important for people to stay socially connected, even if that means in a physically distant way,” Googins said.

Even as the program encountered small glitches, program coordinators and participants turned them into teachable moments, which strengthened concepts already emphasized by the program.

“Adulthood is an ongoing, changing process,” Googins said. “It’s not linear, and we have to adapt to overcome barriers we’re facing. As our program grows, we will continually strive to capture this complexity.”

Give Now

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 Disabilities, the 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. The master’s degree program in occupational therapy is part of the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy. The HEELS Prep online summer program was possible through support from the Oak Foundation, the Rehabilitation Services Administration, and UNC Public Policy.