Roots to Wings

Farmer Nicole Engdahl of Kennard cuts strawberries for pies, which will be sold in the Roots to Wings store in Arlington.

Ashley Dougherty loves seeing young adults excited about their future life.

As the special education director for Fort Calhoun Community School's Pioneer Learning Center (PLC), Dougherty is constantly looking for the right employment fit for students in the young adult program, which serves 18- to 21 year-olds.

The mission of the young adult program, which includes students from Fort Calhoun and Blair, is to maximize each individual's full potential in order to provide a successful transition into adulthood.

Now in its eighth year, the program also aims to build and strengthen relationships with businesses in the Washington County area as part of its vocational development curriculum. Thus far, the young adults in the program have worked at businesses in Blair to learn job skills.

As she's built the program, Dougherty said she's tried to add a new aspect each year and this year is no exception.

Starting this month, the young adults will have another opportunity to learn job skills and explore possible careers as the PLC partners with Roots to Wings, an Arlington-based nonprofit organization aimed at offering employment opportunities and improving the quality of life for those with disabilities. Roots to Wings operates a retail store at 315 W. Eagle St. in Arlington.

Though she's known about the Roots to Wings program, which is in its third year, Dougherty said discussions about partnering with organization didn't begin until this past spring when program director Sheila Monke attended a PLC transition meeting.

"As students get ready to transition out of the school services, we start looking at jobs," Dougherty said.

The Roots to Wings program was one of the possibilities discussed not only for students leaving the young adult program, but those currently enrolled.

After the meeting, Dougherty and some of the young adults and their families visited Roots to Wings.

"I really like their individualizing of their programming to fit the needs of their young adults," Dougherty said. "They don't have a canned program they just put students into, which is what we believe strongly here. Our program is set up, but then we try to individualize it to meet their needs and what they are looking for in a career and their future life."

After visiting the group's retail store and garage space where the employees, known as farmers, work, Dougherty realized they have similar missions and goals, so she and Monke began planning.

"We started talking about how this can work," Dougherty said.

Plans are for the young adults in the PLC program to begin working with the Roots to Wings volunteers and farmers once a week, starting Aug. 28. One of the farmers they will be working with recently completed the PLC's young adult program, Dougherty said.

"This will give them another importunity to be out in the public and doing different things with another group of people with disabilities," she said.

Monke is among the volunteers who work with the farmers at Roots to Wings. The partnership with the PLC, she said, gives them the opportunity to expand their program, which they are able to do thanks to a community impact grant from the Fremont Area United Way.

This year's PLC young adult program has three students and Roots to Wings currently has four farmers. Monke sees the partnership benefit all involved.

"It's an opportunity for our farmers to create more friendships and develop new relationships," she said. "It's fun to watch that blossom because sometimes farmers can be a bit isolated, so if there's another way they an engage in other ways, socially, that's a very good step."

The partnership will also allow Dougherty to share some of her curriculum with Roots to Wings.

"Sheila talked to me about some life skills curriculum, information that I have and can share with her," she said.

Because the PLC program includes Fort Calhoun and Blair students, Monke said it is a great place to start. She said Roots to Wings already works with Arlington Public School's Young Adult Program.

But, Monke sees the partnership it as just the beginning.

As their grant application for the Fremont Area United Way stressed, in order to make an impact in the community it's best for them to start working with students as early as possible, ideally age 14.

"In a perfect world, if we were to engage students earlier, by the time they reach 18, we can have them trained and certified in gainful employment in some sort of job of their liking and to work with them to become fully employed by the time they reach age 21 when they complete the transition program," Monke said.

While the partnership will be a work in progress this first year, Dougherty likes what she sees from the Roots to Wings program.

"I can see that they are looking for what the kids are interested in," she said. "They area also pushing them. They are not letting them stay in their comfort zone. They are pushing them to try new things, but also letting them take the lead as to what they are interested in. I can tell they have high expectations."

Monke said she's looking forward to working with Dougherty and the young adults from the PLC.

"Ashley has been amazing," she said.

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