For Connor Finley, 19, of Pine, the recent Northern Area Transition Fair at A.W. Beattie Career Center in McCandless was at the perfect time and the perfect place for the soon-to-be graduate of Pine-Richland High School.
Connor, a culinary arts student at Beattie who works at a fast-food restaurant after school, is not sure how he'll get from graduation into a job and an independent life.
"I've been waiting for this for months," he said of the event. "I'm hoping that I'll find something that will help me to cross that bridge from high school to work."
The free fair last month for teens and adults making a transition from high school to college, college to the workplace or to a new job, featured exhibits and booths by employment agencies, military services, post-secondary education institutions, job training facilities, community support programs and county agencies.
"There are certain things Connor is not able to do," said the Pine-Richland student's mother, Gena Finley. "The vendors here give us insight into the different opportunities he might have. For instance, there is an employment liaison who helps prepare kids to apply for jobs. There are state agencies that help kids to transition to the workforce by letting them job shadow."
Erin Rushe, Beattie's learning facilitator, said school districts used to hold similar events by themselves, but by bringing 45 representatives from Beattie's nine districts together in one place, more information was offered to more people.
"This year's fair was a big success, and we had a great turnout," said Ms. Rushe, noting that families with special-needs teens were able to connect with agencies they never knew existed.
One of those agencies is the nonprofit Emmaus Community of Pittsburgh, which provides respite care, advocacy and even permanent homes for people with intellectual disabilities and autism. Joannie Brown, nonresidential program manager, said the Emmaus Community helps special-needs young adults with issues like socialization as they face the prospect of living away from their parents for the first time, or finding a group home to live in after high school.
"An event like this is great for parents because as their children get older, there are so many issues that have to be addressed, and this basically starts when children hit the age of 14," explained Mrs. Brown. "Parents have a lot of questions, and a fair like this is very helpful in providing information, so that these kids can learn to live within the community and be more self-sufficient."
Self-sufficiency is certainly the goal Natalia Onufrey of Franklin Park has for her son, Paul, a junior at North Allegheny. Interested in religious studies, Paul, 18, has Asperger's syndrome.
"Kids with special needs grow up so guarded by their parents," she said. "But this is the time for my son to learn to go away and live on his own, because if not now, when? Everything is a learning experience, and we'll try it, and if we don't succeed, then I'll have no regrets."
Mrs. Onufrey said more colleges are offering services of support for students who need extra help in transitioning to the college setting.
"These decisions used to be in the distant future, but now he's in 11th grade, and our window of opportunity is closing," she said, adding, "Now we're about to cross (or not) cross that bridge. As the mom of a special-needs child, the pressure to make the right decision is unbelievable."
Dawn Walker, senior admission counselor for Davis and Elkins College, which is about 140 miles south from Pittsburgh in West Virginia, said her school participated in the fair because it's a good fit for Western Pennsylvania kids who want to go away to school but stay in a familiar type of setting that's not too far from home.
"Going to Davis and Elkins wouldn't be a shock for local kids, because it's a small school with strong learning support, and the area here is similar to the town of Elkins," Ms. Walker said. "We work closely with the kids who have trouble transitioning."
"The last thing we want as educators is to end up with a student who graduates and then sits at home and is not successful at anything," Mr. Rushe said. "People need to live meaningful lives."
Jill Cueni-Cohen, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.