JACKSON TWP — The “Helping along life's journey” message is a strong force at the Lifesteps Transition Program, off Route 528. Young adults with special needs learn skills that allow them to pursue their most independent life.
The program currently helps 27 adults, ages 18 through 30s, move from high school into adult life.
“Our goal is to help them reach their potential in independent living and employment,” said Lynn Pukylo, director of transition at the program center on Lindsay Road.
The program center is staffed from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.
Depending on the clients' needs, the young adults first learn soft skills such as how to talk to a boss, what to wear to work, being hardworking while on the job, and other important facets of employment.
They then practice what they learn in the classroom at a variety of community partners such as Walgreens, TJ Maxx and the Pittsburgh Marriott North in Cranberry Township.
Progress is measured using a checklist of soft skills, and when a client reaches the 80 percent mark, they move into employment services at the program center.
Pukylo said Microbac Laboratories — an environmental, food and nutrition and life sciences testing firm in Warrendale — called the program center and said they were interested in hiring multiple transition clients.
Skills in action
Renee, 31, works at the Microbac facility. She labels bottles and files various papers for the company, whose owner has a son with autism.
“Whatever they need me to do, I'll do it,” Renee said.
She didn't know what to expect on her first day, so transition program staff took her on a tour of the Microbac facility before she began working there.
Renee has been coming to the transition program for three years.
“My favorite things are my friends and my teachers,” she said, “and I like the volunteer outings.”
She said she learned to open up and interact with people since she began attending.
“I was always quiet until I started to come here,” Renee said. “I was always in my shell.”
Pukylo said emerging from her shell helped Renee become employable.
“You can have all the basic skills, but if you don't have social skills to communicate with customers and coworkers, you're not going to be successful on the job,” Pukylo said.
Kate, 25, has been attending the program center for four years. She said the staff and fellow students have become like family to her.
Kate just started her job at Sam's Club in mid-December.
She said working as a volunteer at TJ Maxx helped her greatly in her job at Sam's.
“I trained there and eventually used that in my job now,” Kate said. “I straighten the clothes.”
She works Mondays and Fridays, and comes to the program center Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays to work on money management and other skills.
Kate, who planned to spend her first paycheck on an iPad or Kindle, can't imagine her life without the program center.
“If I was not coming here, I'd pretty much sit at home and be a couch potato,” she said. “It's fun coming here.”
Marie, 22, has been coming to the program center for transitional services for two years.
“When I first joined, I was a shy person,” she said. “A few months in, I outgrew that and became more talkative as time went on.”
She has completed the volunteer training program and is moving into employment services.
She worked at a hotel folding napkins and doing laundry for her volunteer training.
“I like retail,” Marie said. “I want to work at Bath and Body Works. I like the thought of giving back to people and giving stuff to people. It makes me happy.”
Pukylo said the transition program helps diversify the workplace and decrease the stigma associated with adults who have special needs.
“Everyone has something to contribute, and when individuals with disabilities are in the community, it helps with that stigma,” she said.
She said instead of living in a group home or with relatives, many of those who have graduated from the transition program have gone on to live independently.
Pukylo's daughter, Abbie, 28, was one of the first students in the transitional program.
Today, she takes the Butler Area Rural Transit bus to work at a hotel in Cranberry Township on Mondays and Wednesdays.
Pukylo explained that Abbie has learned responsibility by taking the bus by herself and courage by making purchases alone at the grocery store.
The program center includes a classroom, exercise room, offices, cafe, conference room and full kitchen, where students learn how to shop and prepare their own meals, wash dishes and do laundry.
Missy McCowin, the program center's senior supervisor for transition, said she frequently guides students as they prepare a dish in the kitchen. The most requested recipes are desserts, she said.
“We try to keep it healthy, but we splurge on special occasions,” McCowin said.
A nearby chore board requires the students to complete certain chores for 15 minutes per day.
“I like to call them daily responsibilities,” McCowin said. “It really helps with taking action and responsibility for the space you occupy.”
McCowin, a 2005 Slippery Rock High School and 2010 Slippery Rock University graduate, sums up the thoughts of all who work to improve lives in every program at Lifesteps.
“It's been my passion ever since I was in high school,” she said. “I've always wanted to help people.”