Seven Hills ASPiRE! is incredibly grateful to the National Grid Foundation for the generous grant award of $20,000 towards our internship program for people with disabilities in our Community Based Day & Employment Support (CBDES) Program. As with most organizations during fiscal year 2021, Seven Hills ASPiRE! did experience a few setbacks in order to keep the people who we support safe and healthy. After being closed for a few months because of COVID-19, our program returned to partial in-person services on August 3rd, operating at a reduced capacity relative to pre-COVID-19 program census. As we have welcomed back participants, employment continues to be a primary focus. Adhering to essential safety protocols in response to COVID-19, this generous grant funding has allowed ASPiRE! to continue critical employment supports for 30 people with intellectual and developmental differences through 20-30 hours of paid internship opportunities, earning at least minimum wage rates.
To provide diversity to opportunities available to individuals supported by our CBDES program, we’ve launched four categories of paid internship opportunity for participants: sustainable farming, janitorial, administrative/clerical, and culinary arts. Interns focused on sustainable farming took part in a 16-week focused internship initiative with Town to Table, Inc. – a local hydroponics company. Town to Table employed nine individuals across three locations focused on sustainable operation of nine hydroponic gardens and tables, from seeding to harvesting to packaging and distribution. Under the direction of Town to Table, distribution focuses on providing our fresh-grown local produce to meet food needs in underprivileged communities.
Two other areas of focus for paid work as part of a training track funded from this grant include janitorial work, and administrative/clerical tasks. In these areas—not uncommon employment tracks sought by individuals supported in our CBDES program—we have supported 17 program participants to engage in paid work as part of focused vocational training. This work is performed at community locations, such as the historic Stearns Tavern at Coes Park and our satellite location on Belmont Street in Worcester. Navigating within the bounds of a continued abundance of caution from COVID-19, we are continuing to explore and expand into new community integrated worksites under these internship initiatives.
In addition to those other three internship opportunities, we were able to also offer culinary work in a commercial kitchen setting. Another Seven Hills affiliate has been providing temporary housing for disadvantaged youth displaced from supported living situations due to COVID-19. As part of that essential service delivery provided in conjunction with DCF, our commercial kitchen was tasked with providing daily meals. Thanks to the additional hands-on support in the kitchen from our interns, we have now prepared more than 330 meals for disadvantaged youth displaced by COVID-19, in addition to upwards of 50 meals prepared every day for participants supported in Adult Day Health programming at Hope Ave. Successful training and work trial through this paid internship initiative has supported one individual to secure and sustain consistent competitive employment in our commercial kitchen setting, working a regular Monday through Thursday schedule—a notable success story for an individual who had regressed somewhat with employment skills due to the pandemic, now assessed as having improved beyond a pre-COVID baseline. Following that initial success in the kitchen setting, we’ve supported two additional participants to begin paid training and trial work in our commercial kitchen, assisting with food preparation for orientations for new employees at Seven Hills Foundation, which recently resumed with food provided.
A key objective of the grant funded internship initiatives is to support participants—through paid work trainings and trials, which consistently receives higher levels of individual engagement—to achieve successful community integrated employment outcomes. Three program participants previously engaged in paid internship opportunities earlier in this fiscal year have since been placed in competitive group supported employment with Affordable Interior Systems (AIS) in Leominster. We’ve established a consistent schedule of Monday through Friday from 9am to 2pm for three individuals. Monthly hours worked average 250, with participants earning more than $3,375 in average monthly wages paid by AIS.
With the additional burden that COVID-19 has been to our organization and our participants this year, we are incredibly proud of what our interns have accomplished thus far. Unfortunately, the majority of our previously established partner employers have temporarily discontinued our employment worksites, due to their internal safety protocols. Without generous community partners, like the National Grid Foundation, we would not have been able to provide these internships and give the individuals in our programs the employment experiences that they deserve.