Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series dedicated to National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Part two will appear in Friday’s Daily Globe, and Part three in the paper’s Saturday edition.
WORTHINGTON — In her 33 years as Vocational Evaluator and Transition Coordinator at Worthington High School (WHS), Marlys Wasmund has helped students take many steps along their unique roads to future employment.
The most satisfying steps she supervises, however, may be the ones she sees students climb en route to the podium at commencement each spring.
“I’ve missed graduation only a couple of times in those years, but when you’ve been working with students from ninth grade on, that’s kind of a special day — kind of a tearful day, sometimes,” confessed Wasmund.
Initially trained as a social worker, Wasmund went on to earn a degree in vocational rehabilitation; she’s been at it ever since.
“I really enjoy it,” said Wasmund of her job, which she describes as helping students who may have limited ability to work.
“I love coming to work every day, and I think that’s because I believe every student we see has the potential to become an important community member and I want them to succeed to the best of their abilities.”
Annually, Wasmund and her staff assistant (Karen Stamer, a job coach who accompanies students on work assignments, job shadowing and internships and has worked in concert with Wasmund for 26 years) interact with 90 to 100 students at WHS, as well as students at District 518’s Alternative Learning Center (ALC).
“We help them tap into their strengths and abilities and work toward achieving their dreams for life after graduation,” Wasmund explained. “It’s my job to help them connect with the right agencies and educational facilities to help them achieve that.”
Wasmund is part of the educational process for every student with an Individual Education Plan (IEP). She attends each IEP meeting and assesses those students’ interests, abilities, activity levels and volunteer efforts.
“Then we use that information to develop courses of action that will help them gain the skills they are lacking to prepare for an adult life, whether that means a job or living on their own,” Wasmund said.
To be clear, the students Wasmund assists represent a wide range of learning levels and capabilities.
“The student may have a slight learning disability, a hearing impairment or a significant learning disability,” Wasmund said. “There are lots of students on the autism spectrum; I work with everyone.
“Yes, I’m busier now than I was 30 years ago, but there is definitely more outside agency support today than there was 30 years ago, too.”
Cultural differences often color how families view their children’s futures, Wasmund observed.
“I have students who will not be able to live on their own, but each culture has different expectations of their disabled son or daughter’s future,” Wasmund said. “Some cultures say, ‘This is my responsibility, I’ll keep the child with me,’ whereas others may want to let the child live somewhere else with help.
“It all depends.”
Career assessments and in-depth vocational assessments of students’ interests and abilities, plus arranging job-shadowing experiences, are all routine tasks for Wasmund.
“I’m always emailing and connecting with the necessary agencies — I schedule, schedule, schedule, and have lots of meetings with parents, though parental response and involvement varies,” Wasmund added.
“Some students go to Nobles County Developmental Achievement Center or to Hope Haven The Achievement Center to work for part of their day, or to learn job skills, or for exploration purposes.”
Other student job shadowing experiences take place at the Veterinary Medical Center, Kids “R” It and We Care daycares, McCarthy’s Floral, IDEaS Computers, Computer Lodge, Bedford Technologies and the Nobles County Library.
Students with an IEP go through an application process for Vocational Rehabilitation Services (VRS) when they are high school juniors. VRS is part of the Minnesota Workforce System.
“That agency takes over when the student graduates from high school to make sure they’re getting on with their adult dream job,” Wasmund said.
“Students on an IEP need support services after high school,” she continued. “We also work with the Southwest Private Industry Council, Nobles County Community Services and the Southwest Center for Independent Living.
“Without those organizations, I wouldn’t be able to do my job, and many students would not have such successful lives because most often, some follow-up is needed.”
Wasmund sees many of her former students working around town, so she knows her efforts to prepare them for gainful employment often hit the mark.
“They work for car dealerships (either as detailers, salesmen or mechanics), at the local daycare centers, at Hy-Vee, at restaurants like Perkins and McDonald’s — I’m always running into old students,” she said.
“There is one former student who always apologizes when he sees me because he is still working at JBS when he had said he wanted to go to college,” Wasmund went on. “But he is a wonderful father, he provides for his family — I tell him it’s great, and that he’s doing so well.”
Success, Wasmund is quick to assert, can take many forms.
“We’re trying to help these students find a way to be involved and productive citizens,” she said. “Sometimes things don’t always go just the way you hoped they would, but that’s OK.
“If you’re providing for your family and have a home to live in and a car to drive, you’re being successful,” she added.
“Or if you’re working at the Nobles County Developmental Achievement Center shredding paper, getting paid and you are happy — that’s also being successful.
“Success can have different definitions.”