Only a little over a year ago, the Wilton Board of Education approved Community Steps, a new transition program for 18- to 21-year-old students with complex needs. The program was put together by Wilton’s special needs educators as a means of providing support to individuals with special needs after graduating high school and as they begin to map out their futures, focusing on life skills, vocational skills and community engagement.

That’s something very new for Wilton. While the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a 30-year-old federal law that requires schools to serve the educational needs of eligible students with disabilities through high school graduation or age 21 (whichever comes first), our Wilton students attended outplacement schools for transitional and vocational services after high school graduation, because the town did not have community-based programs of its own.

Today, six students are enrolled at Community Steps, which is led by three Wilton High School faculty members, including Andrea Leonardi, the assistant superintendent of special services; special education teacher Melissa Barrett; and speech pathologist Naomi Williams. Each of the students has an individualized schedule, which incorporates four areas of learning:  functional academics, which prepares students for a vocational setting; community participation, which focuses on soft skills; independent living skills, which comprises adaptive skills; and vocation skills, which teaches tasks students would take on with most local employers.

A panel called Community Connections, made up of Wilton High School staff, Wilton stakeholders, and Community Steps parents and students, is in place to explore ways to cultivate both community service projects and vocational opportunities in which Community Steps students might participate.

During this first year of programming, Community Steps students have already taken an active role in community outreach and dedicated themselves to becoming meaningful members of society. They have participated in Wilton’s Random Acts of Kindness Day, Westport’s Make a Difference Day, three food drives for the Wilton Food Pantry (collecting over 400 personal care items), the Wilton YMCA’s Holiday Giving Tree, and Socks for Soldiers (collecting over 1,000 socks). In addition, students raised more than $600 for those displaced by last December’s condo fire in Norwalk, and also launched the town wide awareness campaign, “See the Able, Not the Label” for Disability Awareness Month in April.

The vocational piece requires partnering with local businesses, and the Community Connections panel has been meeting regularly with community members around the topic of employment for individuals with disabilities. Currently, Community Steps students are holding internships at the Riverbrook Regional YMCA, as well as Petco and PAWS, both of which are in Norwalk.

Following a recent presentation to the Wilton Chamber of Commerce and Wilton Rotary Club, Community Steps was awarded grant money from both organizations along with Fairfield County Bank. This sparked the members of Community Connections to create a non-profit, Wilton Swag under the leadership of Wilton attorney Doug Bayer, and his wife, Elizabeth Bayer, and with the assistance of Mark Spellman.

The goal of Wilton Swag is to create employment for individuals with disabilities after 21 and serve as the one-stop-shop for all Wilton garb. Wilton Swag officially launched in April with the selling of reusable canvas bags designed by Tatum Kelly (student winner of a town wide Wilton Pride logo contest). At this time Wilton Swag has sold over 250 bags and the Wilton Swag Pop Up Shop will be at various locations throughout the school year and this summer, including the Pop Concert at WHS this Wednesday, May 23; the Farmers Market in June; and the Wilton High School Color Run in June.

Wilton Swag will also be featured at a JoyRide Fundraising Ride on Saturday, June 9. Class kicks off at 11:30 a.m. and will be led by instructor Selina Santos, a Wilton resident. DJ Danny will be onsite spinning tunes with face painting, door prizes and raffle drawings.

While the expectation is that Wilton Swag will expand its merchandise offerings, the larger and more immediate focus is on finding opportunities for Community Steps students to amass the experience and skills they need to be successful in future internship and employment endeavors.

As Barrett recently explained, “We want our students and adults with disabilities to be meaningful members of their community. We are very grateful to the businesses we’re currently partnered with, [as] these partnerships have been a benefit to both the host site and the student.”

Community Steps is eager to engage with more businesses and Barrett encourages the local business community to keep an open mind about the skill sets individuals with disabilities have. Launching Wilton Swag is the perfect way to highlight what Community Steps students are capable of doing.

Securing meaningful employment now, while students have access to support and resources is so critical. State law dictates that after the age of 21, students must leave the Community Steps program. Barrett says without the structure, the road to success can be more challenging.

As Barrett looks ahead to the summer and beyond, she is pleased at the constellation of transition services Community Steps has successfully provided Wilton Public School students aged 18 – 21 in its first year. She looks forward to ongoing growth – the program is expected to have seven students next year, 10 the following year, and 15 the year after that.

And, she’ll be counting on the Wilton business community to embrace the diverse abilities of the young adults in Community Steps.

Community members looking to partner with Community Steps may contact Barrett via email.

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