On November 13th, on the site of the long shuttered 84 Lumber in Pennington, “We Make” welcomed its first group of Hopewell Valley Central High School (CHS) students to a unique job training program. All of the participating students live with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) and are part of the high school’s Academic Essentials special education program. Though academics are still part of the program, much of the focus shifts to job training at age 17 and continues until graduation, and for many of the students, job training will continue through the District until age 21. At that point, they may choose some form of higher education or enter the workforce. We Make joins the many job training options that exist for current and former CHS students living with I/DD.
For We Make’s founder, Tony Lesenskyj, the venture is personal. His son lives with autism and is close to aging out of the public education system. He wanted his son to thrive at work, personally and professionally, and have fun while doing it. Since he could not see that happening in existing work environments, Lesenskyj decided to create one.
People with I/DD have a difficult time getting and staying employed and those that find employment see little opportunity for growth, Lesenskyj explained. In the face of challenges that can include difficulty processing language, difficulty learning new tasks, repetitive medical issues, mood dysregulation, fine and gross motor issues, need for frequent breaks, and sensory issues, to name a few, and very few employers are willing to troubleshoot solutions for individuals to succeed. After all, they have to make a profit.
Lesenskyj, who is also the founder and Chief Executive Officer of LMT Mercer Group, Inc. (LMT), a manufacturer of vinyl and wood composite fence, deck, and railing accessories, decided to build an assembly facility that would supply product reserves for future LMT orders, while working with, rather than against, an individual’s disability.
The program really begins even before an individual begins the training program. “We have an information team meeting where we talk to all the stakeholders in an individual’s life — parents, aunts, uncles, friends, respite workers — who can help us learn their skill sets, who they are as people, and their interests. Together we develop a plan for the individual,” said Mohammad Siddiq, We Make Program Director.
Along with Andrew Allshouse, Program Manager, it is determined what workstation modifications are needed and what motivators (i.e. playing basketball, video games, or board games) will facilitate success.
Though the assembly of most LMT products is outsourced, it is possible that We Make will be able to take over a significant amount of the workload. Product assembly training takes place in six week blocks, focusing on one product line at a time. When one product line is mastered, another is taught and the process is repeated until all lines have been learned. At the end of the training period individuals may choose to work in another industry or become employed by We Make and earn a wage. Higher functioning individuals will have the ability to become team leaders, learner higher skilled assembly tasks (i.e. electrical components of solar caps), or even learn data entry into software programs such as Microsoft Excel.
Work is more than a paycheck. It provides routine by having a place to go each day where social relationships are built, and it is an answer to the question, “What do you do?” According to Lesenskyj and his team, people with I/DD are capable of extraordinary things if given the right supports in an environment full of outside-the-box thinking. In time, they hope We Make will prove to be a model that can be replicated across the country.
To learn more about We Make, visit their website or call Muhammad Siddiqu, Program Director, at 609-559-5096.