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Van helps Forsyth young adults with special needs get to work
van

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For more information on the program, contact Linda Fitzpatrick at lindasoforsyth@gmail.com or (770) 317-3562 or Melissa Corliss at melissa@unitedwayforsyth.com or (770) 781-4110.

FORSYTH COUNTY — If Anna Blethen could drive herself, she would probably still be employed at Siemens.

She has never been fired from a job, and she didn’t want to resign just because she was unable to find transportation to and from work.

Blethen is 26, but her cognitive challenges prevent her from being allowed a driver’s license. When she graduated from Project Life, a collaboration with Forsyth County Schools and the community to provide job skills training for students with special needs, she was hired by Aramark at Siemens Industry Inc. to work in the cafeteria.

Her mother, Janet Blethen, tried using the county’s Dial-A-Ride program but found it difficult to plan ahead and use five days a week.

After just a couple months of driving her daughter to and from work every day, her own employment suffered and Anna had to resign.

“She was extremely upset that she had to give her notice to leave her job,” Janet Blethen said. “She’s quite capable of working at a grocery store, but how’s she going to get there?”

Anna began volunteering for the PIER Foundation a little over a year ago, Blethen said. The only reason she is able to do so is through a United Way van that picks her up and brings her home from her 10 a.m.-2 p.m. job.

“That works out really well. Without it, she would have to depend on me,” Blethen said.

Project Life offers students of the Forsyth County school system the opportunity to train and work as part of their special education curriculum.

Many of these adults have the ability for ongoing employment, said Melissa Corliss, director of community impact at United Way, but transportation can be a “huge barrier.”

Six young adults with developmental disabilities were able to keep their jobs when the United Way transportation service was initiated in June 2012, Corliss said. 

For the first six months, Siemens, an initial partner, provided qualified drivers, insurance and maintenance on the vehicle. Earlier in 2014, United Way bought a van.

The van currently allows 11 people to continue their job at one of four sites.

“Services to adults with disabilities are very limited,” Corliss said. “Employers willing to see the value of hiring this population are even more limited. But if you ask Siemens, for example, they can tell you how hardworking, dedicated and loyal their employees with disabilities are and how employing these individuals has change their entire work environment for the better.

“So shouldn’t keeping these 11 individuals employed and putting others like them on the road to a brighter future be something the Forsyth County community should embrace?”

Anna Blethen has participated in Special Olympics Forsyth County for at least 10 years, her mother said.

“Within her group of peers, about 80 percent are able to perform job functions. But as they get older, so do their parents. And it’s harder to drive them every day,” Janet Blethen said.

One of those peers is Jordan Huffman. The Lambert High senior has been working at the AMC theater for three years.

“I have to drive him back and forth for anything he does,” said his mother, Kathryn Huffman. “He has friends who could definitely benefit from [a transportation service] too.

“It garners some independence. When they do to school, they have transportation.”

Neither mother felt annoyed or burdened for driving their children around, but it become a problem when it interferes with their own work, they said.

“I’ve put a lot of things on hold, but I accepted another job because he’s graduating,” Huffman said. “He’s got the independence, but he has things he has to go do, like work and doctor’s appointments.  My whole weekend revolves around his work. When he goes, I have to be close by in case he gets off early.

Huffman substitutes at Lambert, so she can take him on days they go to school together.

“He loves going to work, but sometimes it gets a little annoying for mom to have to take him to work,” Huffman said.

The United Way van cannot support the number of people who could have jobs if they had a ride. Huffman said she and Jordan are lucky because they have managed it so far and allowed him to keep his job, but others are not so fortunate.

Jordan is 19 and has Down Syndrome. Huffman said they are starting to look at colleges in the area for a couple years down the road.

“It’s a little diminishing when you’re 19 and your parents have to take you everywhere,” Huffman said. “Wouldn’t it be great to have something in place so I don’t have to worry about it?”