(Gardner, MA) – We’ve all been there. We’ve stood on the cusp of adulthood, the future ahead looming large, and the age-old query looms, “what are you going to do after you finish school?” For some, it’s a seemingly simple question, but if you’re a student with disabilities, the answers might not be so easy.

“The Pre-ETS program works to change that,” says Alex Rheinbolt, Career Resource Specialist and Team Leader at Work Opportunities Unlimited. “It’s an innovative, community-based transition program for students with disabilities. It gives students the opportunity to try an experience, early-on, before they graduate, to better identify what they want to do in life.”

Funded by Vocational Rehabilitation, the Pre-Employment Transition Services or Pre-ETS, is a national program that’s centered around career exploration. It does not include job placement, rather it provides valuable work-based learning experiences with community employers.  Work Opportunities Unlimited has been providing Pre-ETS in multiple states since 2016 serving over 200 students annually.   “Pre-ETS paves the way by focusing on the “what’s next” for a student,” says Rheinbolt. “The program provides opportunities for students to consider post-secondary education or different career paths. It gives them building blocks for the future by helping them with self-advocacy, job exploration counseling, work readiness skills and work-based learning experiences. The bottom line is, Pre-ETS better prepares students for the next phase of their lives.”

“I’ve always known I wanted to work with kids, but I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to go,” says Joanna Burns, a student at Mount Wachusett Community College. “I had a negative experience working at a day care facility, and I went to Fitchburg State for Elementary Education but didn’t like it. I’m connected to the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC) and my counselor knew that I wanted to work with little kids and suggested Pre-ETS to help me find my way. She introduced me to Alex at Work Opportunities and that’s when things began to take shape.”

As a Career Resource Specialist and Team Leader at Work Opportunities Unlimited Alex Rheinbolt works to break down the barriers to workplace opportunity for people with disabilities. “We’re all about building relationships within the community and helping people make connections,” says Rheinbolt. “When I first met Joanna, she was enrolled in Mount Wachusett and had completed her first semester. Her MRC Counselor reached out to us for an assist and it was clear that Joanna was really driven and eager to turn things around for herself; she wanted a new experience, a do-over, to make sure that teaching and early childhood development was really in the cards for her.”

“Alex worked with me to identify my goals and helped me develop my work skills, and then he found a really good pre-school for me to do an internship. He built a really good bond with the employers, and they were really supportive,” says Joanna.

“As we walked through the Pre-ETS process it became more evident that working with kids was truly her passion and where her heart is,” adds Rheinbolt. “That’s when I reached out to the folks at Klever Kids.”  Klever Kids Preschool in Gardner, Massachusetts serves children from six weeks to twelve years of age. At the heart of their curriculum is the credo that children learn through play.

“Joanna was given a tour of the facility, and then the time came for her to sit down with the owner. We had worked hard to make sure that she was prepared for that moment; the interview was on her, and she really stepped up.”

“Alex helped me with different skills but the work we did with the interview process really helped me. He taught me what to expect and helped me organize my thoughts.  Alex set up an interview with Klever Kids; I was extremely nervous!  The director gathered information about me, and we talked about where I might fit in and I told her that I wanted to work with younger kids.”

Joanna was given a forty-hour work-based learning experience or “internship”. It was agreed that she would work three days a week, about 4 hours a day.  “I just felt ecstatic!” says Joanna. “Every day I would jump out of bed and say, ‘let’s do this!’ I was so excited to see the kids and I loved that Klever Kids philosophy of learning through play aligned with my own beliefs. It was a dream come true.”

“I would go and observe her on-site and saw that she was a natural. Joanna owned it; she immediately assumed the role of teacher.  When she spoke with kids, she’d get right down to their level. She knew how to interact with them but also understood how to create boundaries, and innately knew how to teach the children about appropriate behavior. Her whole attitude shifted once she started the internship. After the 2nd shift, she said, ‘it’s so much better than the last experience.’ Klever Kids was a great experience for her; it really turned things around. In fact, the director was so impressed with her, that she changed Joanna’s role to substitute teacher. After Joanna’s work-based learning experience was complete, they kept her on as a per diem employee.”

“I was so overjoyed because I didn’t expect anything.  I figured I’d do my 40-hour assessment, have a great experience, learn a lot, and then never hear from them again. Now, I get to work with the kids a few days a week; I get to see their educational growth and hopefully impact their lives in positive ways.  I’m not sure this would have been possible without the Pre-ETS experience. Alex gave me a new perspective; he gave me the opportunity to take a closer look at what I thought I really wanted to do, and now I’m all in!”

“We all know that information is crucial when making life decisions,” says Rheinbolt.  “Pre-ETS is an experiential, immersive process that empowers the student; it provides them with information and better prepares them to make sound decisions regarding career or school. Essentially, it gives them a leg up with the transition into adulthood. Joanna is a prime example. She’s on a solid path now, completing her second year at Mount Wachusett Community College and working at Klever Kids.  As far as we’re concerned, it doesn’t get much better than that.”