ORLANDO | Rey strolls down the halls of Loews Sapphire Falls Resort confidently as other camp participants follow. This is his second Career Camp. The hotel staff says “hello,” cheerfully welcoming him back. One says, “Oh, Rey’s here. It’s all going to be fine.”
This is Magnify of Central Florida’s Career Camp, a program that offers students with intellectual and developmental disabilities a chance to explore career opportunities and discover how their unique, Godgiven gifts might fit in with a certain career path. Students who are clients of the Department of Education’s Vocational Rehabilitation are eligible to learn job readiness, gain self-advocacy tools to thrive in the workplace and train in a variety of areas. Camps are offered virtually and in person.
“I liked having new experiences and helping other people,” Rey said. “I liked how they taught me to work in different departments.” Rey attended the longer winter camp where different career choices were considered. The spring camp he attended, March 13-15, focused on positions in the hospitality industry. Upcoming summer camps will focus on retail and transportation. Yet others include vocational themes in entertainment, retail, arts, transportation.
Combining students ages 14 to 21 means there are a variety of abilities present. In Rey’s case, his experience allowed his natural skills of caring and leadership to shine. Career Camp enabled the development of those skills and showed how they apply in the work force. A clear example is of his high school friend who participated in the spring break camp. An extremely shy person, uncomfortable around other people — Rey’s confidence and compassion put his friend more at ease.
Currently an intern for Project SEARCH, an advanced year-long employment internship aimed at acquiring job skills, Rey serves Orlando Health Central Hospital in Ocoee. The career camps broadened Rey’s employment options. He discovered he is particularly attracted to work in the hotel’s culinary department. Loews was so impressed; they hope to hire him when a culinary/steward position is available. Rey is ready to accept the offer when it comes and would like to continue helping his family cover expenses.
Faith is a first timer to Career Camp. Her mother, Rachelle, describes her as shy, taking some time to feel comfortable around groups of people. It was also the first time the University High School student would be away from her mother. Project SEARCH manager Lara Orsini put Rachelle at ease. “Lara was very responsive, answered my questions and made sure I felt very comfortable,” she said. “She sent me pictures during the day, so I knew Faith was safe.” Rey’s attention to his group also helped Faith adapt quickly.
“Ever since (Faith) was younger, she would say she wanted to work,” explained Rachelle. “We encouraged her having her do chores at home and other things.” Faith’s dream job was at Publix in the bakery department or working at Chick-Fil-A. “She always had that mindset, so when this opportunity came through her teacher in high school, it made sense,” Rachelle noted.
Although Faith was quiet at first, she came home sharing news about her day. “She was very excited,” Rachelle said. “She shared her new shirt, name tag, and was telling me stories. She was very talkative and that was amazing. So, I knew she enjoyed it.” Faith enjoyed working in the bakery the most and learned how to make tuna salad. In fact, she went home and taught her mom how to make it, so they did it together.
The spring camp was only three days. When Faith received her certificate and stipend, offered as an incentive to encourage students to participate, she was proud. “We would ask her if she was going back,” Rachelle said. “Then Faith would explain, ‘No mom. That was practice but I am going to work soon.’”
“She has that memory that she worked hard, she got money, and she was able to buy something she wanted. That was a very positive experience for her. It was a core memory for her because somebody taught her to do something aside from mom.” Rachelle added,” Faith enjoyed being present and working with other teens as a group. I absolutely love watching the host site embrace the students, bringing them into their work culture.”
For the younger students, like Faith, experiencing a work environment for the first time, Orsini said, “Seeing them learn about their interests and become more confident in their interactions is wonderful.” She was pleased to see some students offered jobs and ready to apply for Project SEARCH. “The independence and confidence level in just a few days is astounding,” she said.
Desiree Robles, director of employment and life skills programs at Magnify explained why Career Camp is so important. “It provides an opportunity for younger students to prepare sooner for the workforce and an opportunity to explore careers in a protected environment, free to ask questions and to make mistakes to prepare them for their next experiences,” she said.
“Being in the presence of pure-hearted students with new eyes, also motivated the staff, giving them new purpose and awareness of ability free from stigmas and labels, which I believe makes for better employees as well.”
While other agencies provide similar services, Robles shares what sets them apart. “Magnify is different because God is visible in our mission and execution of our training,” she said. “God uses our team as His instruments to help the students recognize their divine selves. Who they are and what they are is not their bodies or intellectual capacities. There is a spark of divinity in each of them that is lit when they are protected and guided to discover their talents.”
By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic staff, April 21, 2023