Three Years, Three Amigos
(from left to right) Daniel, Chiles and Stuart
Stuart, Chiles and Daniel met at Pathways to Independence (PTI) over three years ago and have only become closer over the years. PTI has been helpful in keeping the three in contact. Chiles mentions “I started inviting Stuart and Daniel to small groups because we made a connection” and now they communicate often through text messaging and Facebook.
The Social Focus program allows participants to take the lead in the planning process of their own social events in the community with the guidance of a PTI staff. The participant works with a PTI program staff to invite other participants, choose a place and time, coordinate transportation, budgeting and many other aspects required of getting people together to socialize. The PTI staff meets the participant where they are and steps in where needed.
Stuart recalled a recent outing: “We recently went to Tom’s Bar and Grill and it was a lot of fun! My sister took a picture of the three of us and called us the ‘3 Amigos.'” Daniel and Chiles both remember this outing as very enjoyable. It’s clear that all three of them cherish their friendship and memories. Stuart expresses that his friendship with Daniel and Chiles “makes me feel special.” PTI staff have helped Stuart, Chiles and Daniel find the people they can talk to about their life and things they enjoy. The three of them are proof that at PTI, good food and good friends always means a good time.
When they want to plan a small group, all three of them said that the PTI staff are vital to that process. Chiles says that PTI program manager, Rose, has helped him plan small groups by calling people he suggested to invite and determine the places he’d like to have small groups. He notes that “Rose has helped pick a time that works for everyone.” Stuart has also learned some tips along the way when it comes to planning small groups and has some advice: “I’ve learned that you have to call at least week in advance, instead of at the last minute.”
Stuart, Chiles, and Daniel all say the PTI staff taught them important social skills and help to facilitate their conversations. Daniel comments “the staff has definitely helped initiate and guide conversations.” Chiles says PTI staff have assisted him in his conversation skills on a reactive basis “if something pops up, Pathways has helped me.” The PTI staff coaches Stuart to be more socially appropriate at events which has translated into success in other areas of his life. “The staff has helped me learn to keep my comments to myself” and “some of the rules are you have to be nice to people, respectful of others and everything else will fall in place.”
The three of them agree that PTI has increased their self-advocacy and now they have an easier time talking to people, both inside and outside of PTI. For many, PTI allows its’ participants feel more comfortable in their communities. “I’ve learned to be more open to people and I don’t isolate myself as much.” says Stuart. Daniel testifies that “Pathways has helped me get out of the house more and do more interesting things.” Lastly, Chiles wants us all to know that “Pathways has given me the opportunity to meet people with different interests and backgrounds.”
Ashley and Crystal: Both Skills and Friendship Blossom
Crystal and Ashley met many years ago, long before they joined PTI as participants. The met briefly and then when Ashley’s mother broke her ankle and needed help, Crystal and her family had just moved in across the hall and were there to help Ashley and her mother.
Crystal discovered PTI and joined first. She says, “Before PTI, I was very shy and was always in my room by myself. I didn’t have many friends, but I wanted to meet more people. Once I joined PTI, I was stand off-ish at first, but I was encouraged by Rose and the other staff to interact with the group at Social Growth events.”
Ashley soon followed suit and became a PTI participant as well. She says, “I have always been outgoing, but before Pathways, I struggled with being socially appropriate, handling conflicts and communicating my feelings. For example, I’ve learned how to better communicate with my co-workers and managers to solve conflicts in the workplace, specifically through the Successful Communication in the Workplace Social College.”
Resolving conflicts, compromising and utilizing problem solving steps have been issues for both Crystal and Ashley throughout their friendship. PTI staff have coached them to resolve many of their conflicts that typically come up between friends over many years. “Our friendship has not always been perfect; we’ve had fights and clashes over the years. We have used the PTI staff, especially Rose, as a resource to help us solve our conflicts and find ways to prevent arguments in the future,” Crystal says.
Ashley has experienced the sense of community and support from the PTI community of participants, staff, supporters and families. “Not only has PTI helped me with social skills, it is a supportive community that has helped me with my educational goals. When I was studying for my CNA license, the staff and other PTI supporters helped me pass my test.” When she gave a speech at PTI’s Annual Trivia Night where she talked about her upcoming test, supporters came out of the woodwork to help in any way they could.
Earlier this year, at PTI’s Annual Picnic, Crystal and Ashley gave a speech about their friendship and how PTI has positively affected both of their lives. They were both able to share their experience with PTI and how they use our organization as a resource for so many aspects of their lives. Crystal ended the speech by saying, “PTI is not just for the participants, it is good for the whole community. PTI advocates for people with disabilities and helps us show the public that we can contribute too.”
Center for Hearing & Speech and PTI: A Social College Partnership
PTI’s Social College derived from the Conversation 101 classes that were a staple of the Social Growth program for many years. During the 2013 review of PTI’s strategic plan, it was decided to create the Social College program. Later, PTI reached out to the Center for Hearing and Speech (CFH&S) to act as consultant instructors for the program. Each Social College course is four classes long and a PTI staff, who is familiar with the participants and their goals for independence and social success, is always present to facilitate the group and for additional support.
Gina Cato, Chief Speech-Language Pathologist at the CFH&S says, “When people reach adulthood, they don’t have as many resources available to help with their communication skills… The partnership with Pathways gives adults social language experiences within a peer-group format, which means they can practice new social language skills immediately with their peers in the group and long-term through Pathways’ group activities. The partnership creates the best environment for participants to learn and use communication skills.”
A sampling of the Social College courses Gina and/or her colleague, Kimberly Hufstedler, have taught in connection with PTI include: Successful Communication in the Workplace, Friendships to Dating: A Communication Crash Course, Hidden Social Expectations, Nurturing Friendships, Managing and Communicating Feelings and Emotions and Healthy Disagreements.
Gina says, “It’s rewarding to observe or hear about participants using the skills they learned [in Social College]. I’m grateful I see that often.” The goal of this program is to see the participants take the skills they learned in class to PTI events in the community and then in their daily lives outside of PTI.
Mindfulness Programs to be Expanded through PTI and St. Louis Arc CONNECT Partnership
PTI began to offer Yoga and Relaxation classes in November of 2015 in order to offer new techniques for participants to manage social anxiety. The goals are to help participants release tension in both their bodies and minds, increase self-confidence, self-awareness, self-control, improve physical strength and give participants the tools to transfer methods from the classes to their daily lives.
PTI staff and yoga instructor, Beth Gill, has instructed these classes for the past eight months. She says, “All of the participants have come in with an open mind and leave class with better self-worth, self-respect and a kind attitude towards themselves and others…Participants’ strength, posture and memory recall have improved after just a few sessions.”
Brian, a PTI participant, has taken Yoga and Tai Chi classes in the community on his own, but finds that “Beth is a really empathetic and thoughtful yoga teacher. She meets the participants exactly where they are… She is able to teach multiple skill levels in the same class, gives positive feedback and expresses corrections in a non-judgmental way.”
Tatum, a PTI participant who takes the Yoga classes regularly says, “My goal in taking the classes was to reduce my anxiety.” Not only have the classes given her tools to work on this goal, Tatum has experienced many other benefits as well. “I’m a lot calmer and I’ve gained confidence. [The Yoga positions] help me focus on something besides myself. I’m also standing up straighter and my balance has improved.” Further, she reports using some of the breathing and meditation techniques at home or out in the community when she experiences stressful situations.
Beth observes the participants using the relaxation techniques from class at PTI events in the community. “I see moments of frustration arise in our participants that have been coming to yoga and then I watch them take a deep breath and pull through in a kind and positive way.” Also, Beth says, the participants who have taken the relaxation classes “treat each other with respect and have developed some friendships that might otherwise have never blossomed.”
Starting in late August, PTI is partnering with St. Louis Arc’s CONNECT Group to offer “Yoga for Life: Stretching Towards Independence.” The five-week yoga workshop will “foster confidence and skills for independent living for adults facing social challenges.” The class will include one hour of yoga designed for adults with autism, ADHD, anxiety and depression with 30 minutes of social time at PTI’s Inspiration Point space. The partnership will enhance St. Louis Arc members’ opportunities while exposing each person to a new community resource. PTI members will benefit from exposure to new people and practice under a second instructor.
PTI and MERS MO Goodwill Industries: Social Success in Employment
Michael began his Pathways to Independence journey in November of 2015 seeking an environment to develop his social skills, specifically beginning conversations with new people. “I wanted to initiate conversations with new people, get out more and be more independent,” he recollects about when he first got started at PTI.
Michael heard about PTI’s programs through the MERS MO Goodwill Industries Autism Employment Program (MMGI-AEP), which supports adults diagnosed with autism in finding job placements in the St. Louis area. MMGI-AEP training programs provide individualized learning strategies and practical hands-on work experiences that “change lives through the power of work.” “Social skills are vital to the success of employment, as work is a social environment,” says MMGI-AEP Coordinator of Autism Services Jennifer Glassmeyer, “Pathways is able to provide a service for our clients that helps to enhance their successful outcomes in their employment settings by allowing practice and support in achieving their goals.”
Several times a year, PTI and MMGI-AEP get together to host a social event for MMGI-AEP participants with PTI staff. This partnership provides a unique opportunity for their clients to not only refine their employment skills, but also have a chance to try PTI’s social programs. “Jessie and Rose have been amazing with our clients,” says Jennifer Glassmeyer. “They really get the importance of what we are hoping to achieve with each client. They further the progress in each of our client’s areas of need. We are very fortunate to have this partnership with Pathways to allow for the continued social growth of our clients in a setting that we are unable to offer ourselves.” Last year, MMGI-AEP and PTI partnered for ten events serving 33 participants. Michael was one of those who attended a couple of these social events through the MMGl-AEP and PTI partnership before deciding that PTI’s programs were a good fit for his social goals.
Michael continues to enjoy his work as a dishwasher at Nordstrom’s Café, thanks to the MMGI-AEP employment program. He also states that the conversation skills he has gained through PTI “have helped me communicate better with my co-workers.” When he isn’t working, Michael has enjoyed moonlighting as a thriving PTI participant for the past nine months. He said that he particularly enjoys the day trips, where he can utilize the new social skills he has learned through PTI over an extended period. “I have gone on day trips to Springfield, Illinois and Herman, Missouri” says Michael, “It’s nice to get out and visit new places.”
In the future, Michael states, “I’m looking forward to getting out in the community more, making more friends, and just being as social as possible!”
Christy Embraces her Asperger’s Diagnosis
Christy has the somewhat unique experience of being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), a form of autism, in her 30’s. She says the diagnosis has “empowered me to ask for help if I need it and learn more about Asperger’s Syndrome.”
In the six months Christy has been a Pathways to Independence (PTI) participant, the program has become an important part of her life. She moved to St. Louis City in January of 2014 to live with her brother. Soon after, “I met someone who helped me discover I had characteristics of AS.” She
was diagnosed soon thereafter. “As a result, my family and I actively sought out groups to help me socially.”
Feeling like she is a part of a community is important for Christy. Joining PTI is one of the ways Christy made an effort to improve herself. “I hope to gain independence and be better integrated into the community,” Christy said. By throwing herself into the PTI program a few times each month, she has increased her awareness of and become an active participant in her new city.
With PTI, “I feel like I have a social group. Even though it is still early, I see that expanding the more I get involved.” Christy says, “I’m naturally a soft-spoken person. Through PTI, I’ve learned to speak up so that people can hear me. My confidence has grown and my ability to participate in conversations and initiate them has improved tremendously.”
In just a few short months, Christy has embraced her diagnosis, joined a group where she feels she belongs and is well on her way to strengthening the tools necessary to live with AS. She says, “I don’t feel any different now that I have , it’s just who I am.”
Safety National Corporation Steps up to the Plate for Pathways
Safety National Corporation has been an invaluable resource for Pathways to Independence(PTI) for a few years. Founded by a PTI participant’s grandfather, Safety National provides financial, in-kind and person-to-person support to Pathways to Independence. The company first became involved with Pathways to Independence six years ago when their employees volunteered at PTI’s Annual Picnic. Mike Williams from Safety National said, “Rather than just write a check, we wanted to have our employees personally participate in the activity. Consequently, we provided the food and volunteers for PTI’s fall picnic at Tilles Park…On another occasion we partnered with PTI clients at the Color Run downtown. On a grander scheme, we hatched the idea of hosting the PTI holiday party at Safety National’s offices.”
The Annual PTI Holiday Party at Safety National is an event the participants look forward to all year. Every year, Safety National manages to top the year before coming up with even better decorations, activities and food for the participants to enjoy. Mike Williams stated, “For the 2015 party I made it a goal to make it the best holiday party yet…. [We] wanted to make sure that people didn’t just sit at a table and not interact, so we brought in the holiday trivia game, along with bringing a photo booth…to allow [participants] to take home a memory of them and their friends.”
Safety National has also “sponsored PTI clients to attend the Theatre, attend a Cardinal game or two, and we’ve donated towards the purchase of new computer equipment [for Inspiration Point],” Mike says. Safety National’s employees truly understand the value of inclusion for our participants and their commitment to continually support PTI year after year is incredibly appreciated.
Jeff Improves Independence Through Coaching
Navigating the complex nuances of different social situations can be difficult. Jeff joined Pathways to Independence twenty years ago when he was looking for friends who were like himself. “I was out of school and wanted to develop friendships with others who have difficulties like I do. I’m a stutterer, which makes making friends even harder,” Jeff says. The staff at PTI has helped Jeff come out of his shell and develop the confidence to initiate conversations, discover shared interests and make friends.
Now, he says, “I have more confidence to talk with other people, but still have to worry about using my speech techniques so they can understand me.” The PTI staff has helped Jeff with this over the years. He says, “I feel like I can count on them [PTI staff]. They are always respectful and willing to give me tips on how to be polite in certain situations.” PTI staff purposefully builds skill-building opportunities into community activities so participants can develop and practice the skills needed in other areas of their lives.
Despite the struggles Jeff has experienced with his speech, he has been able to develop friendships and plan independent activities with others he met through PTI. He says, “I am a part of a group of guys from PTI that get together and play cards…I’m also part of another group [from PTI] that practices cooking skills. After we cook something, we eat together.” Transferring the skills learned through PTI to initiate planned activities of their own is one of the ultimate goals of Pathways to Independence. Jeff continues to utilize PTI’s services and programming to improve on his social skills. The PTI staff is there to help participants understand the details to be successful.
Ben Discovers his Path to Success with PTI’s GAP Services
Having access to a structured environment is critical for Ben to discover what he is capable of and realizing the path to reach his goals. PTI’s GAP Services fits that need for him as it relates to socializing, improving employment and job-seeking skills or planning for his future. “I have a hard time getting motivated to go out and do things on my own” he says, “Pathways to Independence provides more of a structure for me.”
When he first came to PTI at the urging of his uncle four years ago, Ben says, “I wanted to have a social life, to do more stuff around St. Louis and get out of my shell a bit more. Being cooped up in my house, it’s bad for my psychological well-being.” By being involved with PTI, Ben says, “I’m more enriched by being able to go out and do things.”
On top of having more of a social life, one of Ben’s goals is to have a long-lasting career in information technology. He has worked seasonally for a software company, but wants to have a full-time, long-term career. He started working with Beth Gill in PTI’s new GAP (Growth and Potential) services program. For Ben, it includes 1:1 training on employment readiness, interview skills, job training and applications. A huge step forward for Ben has been discovering, applying for and being accepted into the LaunchCode program using his existing computer skills and the guidance and help of Beth.
The LaunchCode program is funded by private companies and provides training and later apprenticeships for people who want to get into the computer science field. It is a competitive program to be admitted to and Ben describes it as “an adapted course from Harvard and Yale that is aimed at people who come from a nontraditional background who want to learn computer science….I started on the wait list and then got into the class.” The LaunchCode apprenticeship program leads to jobs for 90% of their students.
The skills Ben has gained through PTI’s group social programming have already helped with the LanchCode class. He says, “There are a lot of group projects within the class that are discussion-based. It’s very gratifying to work with others and PTI has made me more confident to reach out and take initiative to join the conversation. I’ve been helped through PTI and now have the skills to work with others on projects in a group situation.”
While he says he still “struggles with consistency and follow-through,” he credits PTI with “connecting me with people and making me a fuller person.” Through the help of PTI’s social and GAP programs, Ben has developed his abilities and has a clear path to follow in order to achieve his goals.
Blake Applies the Skills Learned through PTI in Mulitple Environments
Since 2001, when Blake became a PTI participant, he has been working on his conversation skills, a major goal when he first joined. Before joining PTI, Blake had trouble listening to others, sensing when people were finished and interrupting when others were talking. This made him hesitant to talk to peers, start conversations and tended to get in the way of making friends and integrating in his place of employment.
In the last 14 years, with the help of PTI staff, Blake has learned the nuances of conversation and is able to properly detect when others are finished speaking. Blake says, “I listen first before I talk, and then wait. I don’t interrupt people when they are talking. If I do, I apologize for it. I feel like I’m able to connect with people better.”
Grasping the art of conversation has made Blake more confident when meeting new people and making friends. This has led to several friendships and a girlfriend. Blake’s work with PTI has helped him with his relationships with his family members and becoming more independent. “I’ve grown closer to my family. Today, I’m taking my nephew to the movies,” Blake says. Blake has been a child care attendant at the West County YMCA for 15 years. His relationship with his nieces and nephews inspired Blake to choose a career working with children. “My nieces and nephews gave me the confidence to apply for a job working with kids at the Y,” Blake says. Blake has also utilized the conversation skills he picked up with PTI in his place of employment, “I like talking to my co-workers at the Y,” he says.
As far as the future, Blake has lots of plans and lots to look forward to. “I can’t wait to live on my own and I hope to get married someday.” To new participants, Blake says: “All the staff members are excellent and they will help you in any way, shape or form. You’ll be making lots of great friends!”
Blake (left) with PTI participants and supporters at our Annual Pitch for D.D. event
Blake (left) with fellow PTI participants cheering on the St. Louis Blues!