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New skills, new hope

5 March 2012

New skills, new hope

 “They’re beautiful kids ...They’re starting to get their lives together… and are now doing certificates you wouldn’t think possible when they first started.

“We do a lot of work with parents too and they are in tears. They can’t get over the difference in their kids, and they are so relieved that someone has finally taken an interest.” Tom Osborne

When they first turn up at The Salvation Army Tom Quinn Centre, Bundaberg (Qld) some of the young people enrolled in the Social Inclusion Program (SIP) are completely withdrawn and lack the confidence to make any eye contact. Others are self-harming. Many are struggling with school, or have left school early.

For many young people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), or a range of mild disabilities (and at times with a dual diagnosis with a mental health issue) life may involve subtle peer rejection at best, or cruel bullying at worst.

Trying to manage in a world where they may be expected to function ‘normally’ but may struggle to read other people’s emotions and social cues, can make classroom learning a challenge.

Tom Osborne who manages the Tom Quinn Centre (which runs a wide array of accredited training and work experience programs for around 80-90 people each day) says: “We’ve always had disabled clients coming to the centre with carers to use the pool, or do some woodwork, but what we started finding was a large number of young people, with milder disabilities, were just getting dropped here to hang around, by parents at their wits end.

“Our facilitator Jody (Schneider), who was studying disability services, saw a huge gap in services for these young people, and so we created the SIP.”

The SIP currently supports around 19 young people with mild disabilities, aged 12 to 21, who are able to learn, but who are struggling at school, or who are early school leavers and need some form of training and employment. Participants must be registered with the Queensland Government’s Disability and Community Care Services.

The program offers school based support and work experience in a range of subjects such as horticulture, hospitality, retail, business and woodwork. The program is designed to lead to genuine sustainable employment, also offering lifeskills training and work placement.

The SIP also offers SAGALA (Salvation Army Guards and Legion Acitivities) which is a church based life skills program for youth, similar to Scouts, and is the first time it has been implemented in a Salvation Army social centre.

A weekly soccer tournament with other young people from local disability services (and strongly supported by the local Diggers Football Club) is a highlight, and many of the young people who have been socially isolated often begin to form their first real friendships.

Course creator and facilitator Jody Schneider says: “Many of our clients have ASD or Asperger Syndrome, and a proportion also come from dysfunctional homes. They are not fitting into mainstream school, but they can’t get into special schools because their disabilities are deemed too mild.

“Three years on, we are now getting great feedback from families, from the Department of Communities and the schools. They love the results, which certainly don’t come overnight, as they are complex kids with complex needs.

“For example, we have two guys who are coming into their third year who both have jobs now. One of the young men has a mental health illness as well as ASD. He was addicted to computer games. He would lock himself alone in his room all day. I couldn’t bear to think of what would have happened to him if he didn’t come to us.

“We have a young girl who self harmed and had such a struggle at school, and she just refused to go. She’s now working in the Tom Quinn Café and asking to do year 10 and wants to become a pastry cook.”

Team co-worker Janette Young agrees and says: “The program is one of a kind and we don’t know anything else like it that’s been done.

“One young man couldn’t look anyone in the eye or talk to anybody when he first came here. He’s now on a work placement and he has done his Certificate II in Horticulture. The change in so many of these kids is just amazing!”

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