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From left to right: Neil Gertner, job coach at Ivymount School; Ken Karbeling, general manager of American Reprographics; a student in the program; Samy Ymar, founder and president of American Reprographics.
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A student from the Ivymount School-to-Work program tapes a roll of prints at American Reprographics in Rockville, Maryland, while job coach Neil Gertner looks on.
By Ed Avis
When the Ivymount School in Rockville, Maryland called Ken Karbeling about its work program for young adults with autism spectrum disorders about seven years ago, he was all for it, but was unsure if the program would work in his shop.
“Initially, a lot of people here were reluctant,” says Karbeling, general manager of American Reprographics in Rockville. “They were concerned about interactions with our staff, about potential distractions for employees. Others were concerned about how our customers might react.”
But they decided to give the program a try, and they are now glad they did. “Very quickly all the naysayers here were totally won over,” Karbeling says. “We have some rough guys on our staff, and having these students here really softened them. We’ve probably gotten as much out of the program as the students have. Our employees take great pride in their work with the Ivymount students, and have become very patient teachers!”
The Ivymount School-to-Work program serves students who are ages 18 to 21. They have disabilities, such as autism or speech and language impairments, that may limit their social skills and adaptability to new situations.
Students remain in the program for two or three years, but not necessarily at the same job site.
“This is about students exploring what they like to do,” explains Molly Whalen, director of development and communications at Ivymount. “We have over 35 job sites, and some students go to the same job every day. However, we want the students to explore their likes and dislikes, so they have opportunities to try different jobs and work environments. Ken has had some students who have stayed more than one year, but it depends on their interests.”
From Shredding to Scanning
Two students come to American Reprographics three or four days a week, accompanied by a job coach from Ivymount. The coach guides the students in their tasks, which range from shredding paper to preparing FedEx tubes to more sophisticated projects such as scanning originals and renaming files. A typical workday for the students at American is about two hours.
“They do get things done while they’re here,” Karbeling says. “They come in from 10 a.m. to noon, which is long enough that they can get involved in a couple of activities. Some of their tasks aren’t difficult, but some are more involved.”
But perhaps the most important part of the program, for both American Reprographics and the students, is the social aspect. Many of the students have limited social skills, and a key part of the Ivymount program is to teach them how to interact with others in a work environment.
Karbeling says one of the first things the students do when they arrive is learn the names of his 20 employees, which helps them socialize. Thereafter the students talk to coworkers just like any other employee would. “It’s great to see the evolution of a student who doesn’t talk much become more social once he learns everyone’s name,” Karbeling says.
The students are happy to come to work and bring cheer to the workplace, he adds. The regular employees respond to their positive attitude by treating them as coworkers.
“The guys working here don’t treat them like special-needs people,” Karbeling says. “The job coach who comes with them told me the students appreciate the fact that when they’re here, they’re not invisible.”
Whalen says that the social skills the students develop will hopefully translate to future success in life.
“One thing we love about the American Reprographics jobs, especially for the young male students, is the camaraderie with the employees,” Whalen says. “Most of our students have autism, and the biggest disability is their inability to understand social norms and environments. So to be in an environment where they are around some really nice supportive employees, where they’re learning how to ask for help or advocate for themselves, is one of the most valuable things American Reprographics brings to us.”
The relationships the students develop with Karbeling’s employees go beyond the workplace. They sometimes attend sporting events together, and the employees attend the graduation event at the school.
“It’s neat to see how proud the guys here are of the students’ accomplishments,” Karbeling says.
About five years ago one of the students proved to be such a good worker that Karbeling hired him. He now works four days a week as a regular employee, mainly helping with large-format color scanning. He also sometimes helps with deliveries.
That student has become a key part of the American Reprographics family, and he regularly shares his accomplishments with coworkers. For example, when he received his driver’s license, he brought it in and proudly showed the staff.
The bottom line is that the relationships American Reprographics staffers and the Ivymount students have developed go both ways – the students learn essential social skills and the employees learn about people who are a little different from them. Both groups benefit from the mix.
The day-to-day work of a reprographics shop can get a little monotonous and unexciting. The Ivymount program adds some variety to the American Reprographics workplace.
“The students brighten the day for everybody,” Karbeling says. ““Samy Ymar, founder and president of American Reprographics, considers our partnership with the Ivymount School to be among our company’s greatest accomplishments.”
Karbeling says he would like to encourage other reprographic firms to seek out similar relationships with schools and organizations.
“Many of the skills and tasks in our shops are easily mastered by these disabled students. Imagine someone who walks into your shop, is happy to be there, happy to see everyone, eager to learn, respectful to your entire staff, and can’t wait to come back to work the next day,” Karbeling says. “Their enthusiasm is infectious, they have taught us so much.”
Editor's Note: To learn more about the Ivymount School, please visit its website: http://www.ivymount.org/