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Vocational Programs Help Students with Disabilities Gain Meaningful Work Experience

By: Darcie Gore

At The Vanguard School, students with special needs are working on-campus jobs, like making and selling coffee, practicing daily living skills, and traveling to job sites to work within the community.

From the outside, Vanguard may look like a unique school spread across a scenic campus, and that would be true. However, in addition to its K-12 curriculum, Vanguard is home to VTC – the school’s Vocational & Transition Center – which aims to empower students with disabilities after they graduate.

VTC students, ages 18-22, receive additional support in math and language arts, as well as career training and life skills development so students can continue building independent, meaningful lives after finishing high school.  

“The last thing we want is our high school graduates and their parents feeling badly because their now-adult children are just sitting at home,” said Donna Mazzella, Vocational and Transition Coordinator at Vanguard. “At the VTC, our young adults get as much experience and exposure to what’s out there as possible.”

As a program of the VTC, Community-Based Vocational Training (CBVT) provides off-campus learning experiences for juniors, seniors and post-graduates that stretch far beyond the classroom.  The foundation is community integration.  Students benefit from job exposure and opportunities to work at local businesses in order to develop vocational skills that will make them more employable in the future. They work alongside their classmates, along with neurotypical individuals– another major benefit.

“Many of our students are preparing for life that includes either supported or competitive employment,” says Mazzella. “CBVT exposes students to a range of jobs, work environments and people.” From food service to book distributors, to manufacturing and guest services, CBVT’s mission is to open the door to career exploration, and help young people figure out what jobs they want – and don’t want – to have in the future. As Mazzella puts it, “You can’t really know what your capabilities are unless you try different things out.”

Jeffrey Matlack graduated from Vanguard in 2019 and took advantage of CBVT at age 17.

“When I started my junior year, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be employed,” says Jeffrey. “But I just kept going in CBVT. I liked Eastern University in the cafeteria and United Sports, too. I worked at Boscov’s, Walgreens, Elmwood Park Zoo and grocery stores.”

Turns out, Jeffrey thrived on the variety of worksites and hands-on experience available to him through CBVT, although he did have a favorite. “The YMCA was really great,” he beamed. “I felt included. I did the front desk and mail delivery and met a lot of people. I loved the customer service part. Then I thought, ‘maybe I do want to be employed.’ I mean, I didn’t have school work anymore.”

Being in special education with Vanguard for over 23 years, and as a coordinator for these transition services, Mazzella has known Jeffrey and many of his peers for years, and she’s noticed some program participants taking charge and advocating for what they want to do with their futures.

“CBVT shines a light on what it means to have a job and how that feels,” says Mazzella. “There’s one student I’m thinking about. He’s 18, a student in VTC, and had no interest in ever working. Just not his thing. We started him at Berks Books and he fell in love with it. We never thought we’d see that in him! I think he assumed a job had to be a certain way.”

So, what’s the day in a life of a CBVT student? Participants, like Jeffery, are transported to area business sites during school hours by a Vanguard job coach, who also supervises students during their work shift. They leave around mid-morning and return mid-afternoon. Those new to the program go out one day a week, and as students’ progress, shifts become more frequent.

Along with employable work skills, students learn the value of soft skills, including efficient time management, good customer service, how to communicate with a supervisor, and how to stay on task while working longer shifts.

Along with the YMCA, CBVT currently has 14 other community partners – local places of employment that align themselves with the goal of employing those with disabilities as a way of bringing more inclusiveness, diversity and dedicated workers to their workplaces.

Mazzella is optimistic that she and her VTC team will keep forming new partnerships and keep growing. “Our partners are the foundation of the program. My goal is to keep diversifying. Maybe do less retail and more assembly-line work. Manufacturing is a cool new environment for us.”

This year, CBVT started working with Clean Logic – a global manufacturer of bath and body care accessories.  Mazzella’s voice rose in anticipation as she said, “This is a new job site for us. Students do quality control work, making sure product packaging meets company standards. They use special tools to box items and get packages ready to ship. Many of our students thrive on assembly line work.”

But of course, not all students are alike.

Jeffrey Matlack fishes in his pocket for his phone. “Did I tell you about Phin’s Cafe? I got the extra year because of Coronavirus.”

In 2021, the government passed Act 55 – a law that allowed students with disabilities aging out of special education an additional school year. Students who turned 21 during the 2021-2022 school year were eligible to attend school until they were 22 and still receive services.

Mazzella referred to the “bonus year” as fate. Jeffrey was among the students to benefit and little did he know, Vanguard was set to open its student-run coffee shop, Phin’s café, that fall.

“They asked me if I wanted to work at Phin’s,” Jeffrey said. He proudly flashes a photo of himself behind a register looking well-appointed in a blue logoed apron and clean gloves. “Well, I jumped on that and said… ‘yes please!’ I wanted to work with my friends and help the school. I like food and beverage.”

Phin’s Café, named after the school’s dolphin mascot, had its grand opening in September of 2022. The café serves staff and students during select periods, Monday through Friday, and requires 3-5 student workers per shift. The initiative was a part of a 5-year plan developed by Mazzella which is referred to as Vanguard’s Pre-employment Training Center or PET-C.

“Our population dynamic is changing,” explains Mazzella. “We have more students needing supported employment opportunities. So, we started small. Not all students are ready to go out in the community to work.”

The goal of PET-C is to create on-campus employment experiences for Vanguard students with more challenging disabilities. This way students can start working a job at school first, where they feel more comfortable learning.

Still, that doesn’t mean starting a job on campus is easy. The work pushes kids out of the classroom into situations where they must interact within environments and with people not typical to their academic day – a great way to practice the basics: communicating with others, taking directions, completing multi-step tasks and navigating with independence.

Additionally, for students who are higher functioning, and may become competitively employed someday, the chance to work an on-campus job provides yet another avenue for career exploration – like Phin’s Café did for Jeffrey. According to Mazzella, Jeffrey, and all students interested in on- and off- campus employment, go through vocational assessments.

As Phin’s Café prepared to open, Jeffrey’s counselor, occupational therapist and speech therapist reviewed his files and vocational assessments. “Everything pointed to him being a great fit for Phin’s,” says Mazzella. “Jeffrey was our pilot. He started out on Day One.” According to Jeffrey, the best part of working at Phin’s was working up front at the cash register. “I was trained in everything. But I loved taking orders from customers. I was afraid at first, but I got over that.”

At Phin’s, students rotate through different job positions so each worker learns different skills sets, including organizing inventory, cleaning, taking orders, making drinks and food, working the register, and packaging orders. As the school year progressed, Jeffrey began working every week. He started catering events, taking special orders and making deliveries inside and outside café hours.  “I was the only one they allowed to do the deliveries,” says Jeffrey.

In the summer of 2023, with the help of his family and an outside agency, Jeffrey took his employable skills from VTC and secured his very first paid position in the community – a part-time host at “So Much to Give Inclusive Cafe” – a restaurant in Skippack, Pa., about a 30-minute drive from Jeffrey’s home. “One of my goals is having a full-time paying job. I want to help buy food and things for my family,” said Jeffrey.

Starting in September of 2024, PET-C plans to launch its second on-campus initiative – Phin’s Garage. Mazzella and her VTC team have already begun training students to detail cars, another “really viable field for young people with disabilities,” she says. Once the garage is up and running, there have been rumblings of piloting a horticulture initiative where students would plant, grow and harvest flowers and vegetables to be sold in a school store located on campus.

Could this be Phin’s Flower Shop in the making? “You never know,” laughed Mazzella. “We have lots of ideas and want to give our kids great experiences. I mean, we’re here to help them become the responsibly independent people they want to be, and to build meaningful lives. They deserve that. Personally, I can’t think of a better thing to help make happen.”

Vocational programs like these can be life-changing for families who’ve been told their children would never work, or live alone, or have access to the same opportunities as their peers. Anyone interested in partnering with VFES and The Vanguard School to ensure its adaptability and growth, including the success of its crucial vocational training programs, is invited to consider supporting the VFES' Program Sustainability Fund.


Jeffrey Matlackstudent serving french friesstudent at cash register