How Eagle County Schools’ CLIMB program is helping students with disabilities gain meaningful employment
Program provides students with a safe space to explore options after high school and into adulthood
For individuals with disabilities, securing employment is a means to greater economic self-sufficiency, an opportunity to capitalize on their strengths and engage directly with their community. However, nationwide only 36.4% of persons with disabilities were participating in the labor force as of September 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Locally, there is one program that is working to improve this statistic in the community: the CLIMB transition program at Eagle County Schools. Between 85% and 100% of the young adults with disabilities in the CLIMB program are competitively employed. CLIMB stands for community, life skills, independence, meaningful employment and belonging. The program seeks to help students in each of these areas between the ages of 18 and 21.
“We want students to be able to live the life that they want and to be involved in the community in the way that they want to be involved. So, we give them a lot of opportunities during the three years they’re in the CLIMB program to engage in the community and try different activities,” said Donna Johnson, transition coordinator for Eagle County Schools. “It’s a safe place for people to take risks and try different things. None of us, really, at the age of 18 know what we want to do.”
The CLIMB program is part of the district’s greater transitions services offering, which it is required to provide as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. As defined by the act, these transition services provide activities for people with disabilities that “focus on improving the academic and functional achievement of the student with a disability and facilitate the student’s movement from school to post-school life.”
Many of these services start in high school for students who are 15 years old and given an individual education plan. As a whole, they are centered around providing students with the skills to go from school into engaging in the community as an employed person living their preferred future, Johnson said.
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CLIMB initially started in 2009 and found a home base at Colorado Mountain College in 2011.
“During the day, we’re in the community a lot; it’s called community-based instruction. And so the students are allowed to practice (skills) with support from the teacher and the job coaches for paraprofessionals,” she said. “They’re able to become vibrant community members and try different volunteer activities and unpaid work experiences where they can gain job skills and see what they like, because the job that they have should match their strengths and their preferences.”
In the classroom, students engage in activities such as writing a resume, learning interview skills, working with job coaches, extracurricular sports and activities, community service and more.
For some students, the program also includes post-secondary education at Colorado Mountain College. Some students take continuing education classes or college-level classes, Johnson said.
“We’re working on post-school goals: living independently, working and then the education to get the job, whether it be on-the-job training or if they want to earn a certificate of some sort that will help them gain employment, we help them with that as well,” she said.
And as the program helps students succeed in the future, it also provides students and families with resources to use after the program ends, such as creating links and providing informational sessions with organizations and agencies such as Social Security, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and Mountain Valley Developmental Services.
Building on individual strengths
For one local family, this program has been invaluable. Kris and Paul Macaluso’s son Jason is 20 years old, a cross-country runner, Nordic skier and has autism. Jason graduated from Battle Mountain High School in 2019 and has been participating in the CLIMB program as a way to achieve his future goals.
“The CLIMB program has been an invaluable part of Jason’s continued education, providing the continued support to improve areas of need such as social skills and life skills,” Kris Macaluso said. “The program identifies and focuses on an individual’s strengths and interests and builds on those. He continues to build confidence in his abilities and become more independent.”
These skills, Kris Macaluso said, include learning to self-advocate, how to articulate his thoughts, how to ride the bus and grocery shop, as well as an understanding of finances, budgeting and current events.
Jason is also one of the students who is taking college credit classes at Colorado Mountain College — something that allows him to participate on the school’s cross-country and track program. Jason recently placed first in the men’s 7.2-kilometer race at the college’s Leadville meet on Sept. 25.
The program also helped Jason gain employment. He was recently hired at Eagle County Schools as a cook at Homestake Peak School — a role that is a “great fit” for him, Kris said.
As employment is one of the CLIMB program’s main goals, the staff works diligently to find a job that is the right fit for each student.
“They focus on students’ strengths and build on those. Every person has value and this team especially brings that out in each student,” Kris Macaluso said. “The connections they have in the community to bring opportunities to the young adults in the program to work and volunteer in the community are significant. We are fortunate to have businesses in our community willing to work with and train these students to offer them meaningful, gainful employment in the local community.”
Johnson said that the program works with students to identify passions, strengths and preferences to build individual paths to employment. Right now, the program’s 12 current participants are employed or seeking employment in a number of fields. This includes preschool education, food service and vacuum repair.
And in achieving employment, the benefits for the students are plenty, Johnson said.
“We see a tremendous amount of growth once a student gains competitive employment,” she said. “The employment piece is pretty huge, because it gives them money, ways to engage with other people and a purpose.”
Those benefits extend to the employers as well. During the current staffing shortage facing many local employers, Johnson hopes the program can not only help fill some positions but bring value to the workplace.
“Our employers generally tell us that the morale of their employees increases because there’s just this dynamic in the workplace that’s just a little bit different. People come together and support one another, and so that workplace just becomes more positive in many cases,” Johnson said.
Vail Resorts restaurant manager Jeanne Adams first became involved with the CLIMB program eight years ago, when she started in her role as the manager of the Broken Arrow restaurant at the base of Beaver Creek. Since then, Adams has employed seven students from the program.
“These employees have brought great value to our organization in fulfilling much needed roles and job functions. It is great to be a part of a program that creates a more diverse and inclusive work environment,” she said. “Our guests have often remarked on the positive interactions they have had with our CLIMB employees. These young adults bring great energy and a contagious smile with them to the restaurant each and every day.”
Adams said that participation in the program has been a “joy” and that it not only allows them to support CLIMB and the students, it staffs necessary seasonal positions with “the most qualified candidates.”
“I have really enjoyed the opportunity to employ these individuals, she said. ”They are equally as capable and valuable as any other employee in the same job function or role.“
For Jason, the program has been vital in helping him achieve future goals.
“He plans to keep running, working, taking college classes at CMC and eventually live independently on his own,” Kris said. “Jason wants to be a productive member of the community and enjoys participating with others to reach goals.”
And the CLIMB program has goals of its own as well. Since its inception, the CLIMB program has grown to find new employers, add new services and help more students. And it plans to continue to grow, Johnson said.
In January, Eagle County Schools’ exceptional student services department, which houses transition services, is expanding its vocational programming to provide pre-employment training services to high school students with mild to moderate special education needs. The department is partnering with the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation and CareerX to do so.
“The program will target 40 students and grow to provide services to all who would benefit,” Johnson said.
With all of these components — life skills, community engagement, employment and more — CLIMB seeks to give students a “holistic, meaningful life,” Johnson said.
To do so, CLIMB will continue to build on its success, which, she added, can be partially attributed to the culture and community in Eagle County.
“Eagle County has really stepped up, and the culture here to employ people with disabilities is something that I think should be applauded,” she said. “We have great employers and the culture here is inclusive. Employers that have hired our students have really just made their place of employment a place for students to belong and to be successful.”
October is National Disability Employment Month.