Naperville is known for being one of the best places to live in America and it’s great in so many areas, including its special needs services. In the City’s most recent community survey (2017), 10% of Naperville households reported having someone in the household having a disability (as recognized by the ADA). Services for children with special needs start as early as age 3 in the educational system and continue through high school. But what happens when the school bus stops coming and children with special needs turn 18?
On this Dana Being Dana episode host, Dana Michelle, explores special needs transition services and beyond, or the activities that prepare students with disabilities (ages 18 and up) to move from school to post-school life, including information, options and examples. Dana is joined by Thi Tram Nguyen, Owner and Founder of Chez François Poutinerie , Anthony Longo, an Intern at Chez François Poutinerie, Dan Leahy, Executive Director of the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association, Keith Langosch, Principal of NCUSD 203 Connections Transition Services and Jaime Zouras, Vocational Coordinator of the IPSD 204 STEPS Program.
Recreational opportunities for adults with intellectual disabilities
The group explored local recreational opportunities available for the special needs community after they age out of the educational system. Dan Leahy, Executive Director of the Western DuPage Special Recreation Association (WDSRA), spoke about the various programs available at WDSRA including the popular Rec & Roll program designed for adults 22-55. The program is designed to help local adults with intellectual disabilities increase their community involvement, practice of life skills and enhance their quality of life. “So our Rec and Roll program is available five days a week. Not all families take advantage of every day, but from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., we provide an experience in the community and at these centers that it’s not school based, but it’s more a continuation of what they’re used to being with a group of peers, learning socialization, learning independent skills,” said Leary.
Dan also talked about the special relationship the WDSRA has with the Naperville Park District and that helps make their inclusive programming possible. “We don’t have any facilities of our own. So when we need to do programing, it’s going to be at Fort Hill, it’s going to be at Knoch Knolls. Those are community amenities that we’ve all decided we want. They’ve made those available to us for our participants and our population, as well as partnering with them to offer inclusion to make a Naperville Park District experience adaptable and enjoyable for somebody with special needs,” said Leahy.
Providing employment opportunities in the special needs community
Another area of concern for many families as their children with special needs transition into adulthood, is finding and keeping meaningful employment. Dana welcomed the opportunity to ask local business owner Thi Tram Nguyen about her son Francois and the reason she chose to open her inclusive restaurant in Downtown Naperville.
Thi said her son Francois is on the Autism spectrum and that “he needs somebody always with him. He’s never going to be independent. So I was like, If the high functioning adult with a disability has a problem finding a job, imagine the population like Francois. There’s nothing for them, not even a training job or anything. It’s very difficult. So I was like, You know what? We need to do something instead of just, sitting and complaining.”
She went on, “And I think the system they did a great job for 22 years for our kid, it’s our turn now to do something. And I think as a community, as parents, we can do something. And I was like, You know what? I missed my poutine and I want to provide a job for those with special needs.”
So in July 2021, Tram Nguyen opened Chez François Poutinerie to bring the Canadian staple food of poutine, (French fries, cheese curds and savory gravy), to the Chicagoland market. The restaurant’s mission is to give back to the community by providing much-needed job opportunities for developmentally disabled adults.
One of those adults, Anthony Longo, an Intern at Chez François Poutinerie joined the panel to talk about why he enjoys working at the local restaurant and what it has meant to him. “Because I get to talk to people and be part of a community,” said Anthony.
Naperville D203 & D204 transition services
The second half of the program focused on the special needs transitional services offered through Naperville D203 and D204 school districts. The panel discussed their emphasis on providing opportunities for access to post-secondary vocational skills and increasing student independence across all areas of life.
Keith Langosch, Principal of NCUSD 203 Connections Transition Services said that students in Naperville D203 come to their program to work on the skills they would need to meet their post-secondary goals. He said they work on those in a few different ways “job training, functional academics. Some of our students are pursuing degrees or certificates at College of DuPage (COD) so we can support them in that aspect as well. But the job component and the COD component are some of the larger focuses for our students and our families. But really it’s just a focus on what we can do to help students become more independent and to be ready when they leave the district.”
Jaime Zouras, Vocational Coordinator of the IPSD 204 STEPS program talked about how much the families in STEPS appreciate the work training experience as well as the volunteer experiences the program provides saying “we have some students that go out to community work training or we do volunteer things at Loaves & Fishes or places like that. So just kind of continuing on that experience to get them to where they need to be when they exit.”