If finding a job is tough for any young adult in South Florida these days, imagine the challenge for those with autism and other developmental disabilities.
The Dan Marino Foundation is starting a program to reduce those hurdles.
A new jobs-development program will allow high school graduates with autism and other developmental disabilities to obtain college-level skills and internships to secure work.
The state has allocated $1 million for the venture through the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, which now is focusing more on preparing the disabled for the workplace.
The foundation, launched by Miami Dolphins football star Dan Marino after the birth of his autistic son Michael, expects to help 40 to 60 young adults in the new program in its first year, which will start in October. Applications for the program are available online at http://www.marinocampus.org. The deadline for applying is July 26.
The program should expand to 120 to 150 students starting October 2014, after the nonprofit completes refurbishing and licensing of its downtown Fort Lauderdale facilities, said Jordan T. Knab, dean of the Dan Marino Campus at 400 N. Andrews Ave.
Studies show an urgent need for the training. In Broward, nearly half of intellectually-disabled students that complete high school are neither employed nor attending post-secondary classes a year after they finish high school, Knab said.
The new program will feature four tracks for eligible Florida residents ages 18 to 28: work-study, entrepreneurship, information technology and hospitality. Each includes personalized instruction, mentoring and internships aimed to help the students secure work for at least 20 hours a week.
The entrepreneurship track, for example, might include classes on how to sell a student's artwork. The IT track might include Microsoft certification to help students get jobs checking for errors in software code.
"Even for jobs in warehouses, people now need to know basic applications and programs," Knab said.
Training also will include work on social skills, often a difficult area for the autistic. Teachers and older peers will help students with skills such as what's appropriate to communicate without being too honest, or how to recognize sarcasm and innuendo. The autistic tend to understand language literally, he said.
Training also will use specialized software. Virtual Reality software, for example, lets students simulate interviews, so they can practice how to respond to questions. That allows you "to do it over and over again — without wearing out the staff," said Knab.
Tamarac resident Michelle Canazaro, 24, wishes she had access to such customized help.
Diagnosed with autism at age 10, the high school graduate became the only autistic student in her class at Atlantic Technical College in Coconut Creek. She earned a certificate there as an administrative assistant, mastering such skills as typing, filing and Microsoft programs.
But finding a job proved difficult. She worked for almost a year at a Goodwill Industries warehouse scanning documents, then spent months seeking something else.
Now she is thrilled with her first office job — working at the Dan Marino Foundation. She said she feels more confident, less shy, more able to make eye contact and more open to share since she found work in an office, doing what she likes.
"I think they will have it a lot easier than me. I did it on my own," said Canazaro of students in the new program. "They'll be in a nice environment, using new computers with touchscreens and learning transportation a lot easier than I did.
"It will not feel like you were left behind."
The foundation began offering summer employment programs for the developmentally disabled in 2008, working with local companies, government offices and nonprofits and placing more than 300 youth in summer job since then. The youth worked for 30 hours a week in jobs that ranged from retail to hotels, government to restaurants, said Susan Morantes, admissions director for the Marino campus.
It then expanded its outreach for job placement year-round, with financial help through the Children's Services Council of Broward County. But the need for training for good jobs was clear, she said.
The foundation is investing $10 million to buy and develop its new site in downtown Fort Lauderdale, chosen in part because of the proximity to a main bus terminal and ease of transportation for students. When licensing is complete, it intends to be called the Dan Marino College, said Morantes.
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