Aspire’s Career Academy
Aspire’s mission is to support the successes of children and adults with developmental disabilities, strengthen their families and build embracing communities. In 1960, ten families founded Aspire because they believed that their children, all with a developmental disability, deserved to live, learn and grow in the community. Since that time, Aspire has grown into a forward-thinking nonprofit that serves more than 1,000 children and adults and their families each year in the Chicagoland area. We provide services at 21 Aspire facilities, including 17 community homes, and hundreds of community-based locations including schools, community centers, cultural institutions, and family residences.
Aspire offers unique enterprises with a common thread of building independence with the integral support of family members. Aspire Kids is a leading provider of pediatric therapy,
school and community inclusion services for children with disabilities and their families. Aspire Living provides housing options that assist adults with disabilities to live as independently as possible in the community and Life Enrichment services that further promote interaction with their communities. Aspire Careers helps adults with disabilities experience the independence and pride that accompanies workplace inclusion and gainful employment. Aspire CoffeeWorks is an innovative social enterprise that provides jobs for people with disabilities in an inclusive workplace while generating revenue to support Aspire’s programs.
Our Career Academy primarily targets young adults graduating from high school and university programs. The program is expected to serve 85-90 people per year, assisting a total of 180 people and placing 113 into competitive employment during its first five years of operation.
The initial program population is comprised of 88 participants who have transitioned from Aspire’s former sheltered workshop program, where they participated for many years. This population includes individuals ages 22 to 64 years old, who are 45% female, 55% male, 59% Caucasian, 34% Black, and 7% Hispanic. The average age of the participant group is 50 years. Going forward, the average age is expected to decline as participants are recruited from high schools and universities. Aspires Career Academy is expected to primarily serve people ages 22 to 45 with disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other intellectual or cognitive disorders.
Using hands-on training and specialized curriculums, the Career Academy prepares individuals with disabilities for career paths in a variety of industries. From March 2017 to July 2017, Aspire transformed its sheltered workshop into a training facility with three new learning labs that prepare adults with developmental disabilities for jobs in the
Office/IT, Food Service/Food Prep, and Healthcare/Hospitality industries. Learning labs
focusing on social skill development and personal fitness were also incorporated into the design. Lastly, the two learning labs originally built as our CareerLink program, which provide training for Retail and Warehouse Distribution jobs, have been extended to participants
enrolled in the Career Academy.
Aspire’s partnerships with corporate leaders from a variety of industries ensures successful, community-based career pathways are created for program participants. An advisory group comprised of seven corporate executives is guiding the development of our partnerships with local employers. With their support, Aspire is actively engaging companies that can help us design job training curriculum and hire Career Academy graduates.
Aspire is forging strong employment partnerships with Hyatt Hotels, Magnetrol, Medix, and Bank of America in addition to numerous other local companies. For example, Aspire recently developed our hospitality training program with furniture donated by Hyatt and curriculum
developed through job shadowing with Hyatt employees.
In the Chicagoland area, we are unaware of other organizations providing simulated workforce development training for multiple industries under one roof, similar to the Career Academy model. Traditional employment services connect people with disabilities with an employer and offer minimal on-site job training, one at a time. These programs are limited in scope because they target only people with mild disabilities who can learn skills in a high-pressure environment, typically for a specific placement. Some agencies in Illinois provide training
programs that offer one type of job within one industry, and often the work environment
The Career Academy forges a best-practices model that offers greater choice among multiple career paths within various industries. For example, Hyatt Hotels may hire our graduates for positions including guest services, food service, line cook, line prep, housekeeping, laundry attendant, and/or maintenance helper. Most importantly, Aspire is leveraging evolving corporate values by engaging employer partners who understand the value of hiring people with disabilities and promote inclusive workplaces that better support them.
Aspire’s Career Academy has the potential to make a difference across Illinois by providing a robust business model for workforce development training that serves adults with mild to moderate developmental disabilities, so they can secure real-world employment positions within the community. Being the first-of-its-kind in the state, the new Career Academy will create a model that many other nonprofits can emulate to better meet the needs of families, the corporate labor force, and the government’s desire for market-driven solutions.
In the past few years, many Illinois nonprofits have been considering how to evolve their sheltered workshop programs in response to a growing demand from people with disabilities— and their parents—for community-based work. At the same time, a growing number of companies across the nation, like Aspire’s employer partners, recognize this population as a great “untapped” labor resource. These companies have learned that many people with disabilities make excellent employees for jobs requiring repetitive tasks and positions that tend to experience a high turnover rate. Yet, because these companies aren’t disability experts,
they need a way to connect to this new labor force.
Government-funded agencies are generally poor partners to the corporate sector in tapping this new (but not easily “standardized”) labor resource. Government solutions tend to be “onesize-fits-all” and bureaucratic. In Illinois, government-funded services for integrated employment are even more wanting because of the state’s severe fiscal crisis. Pairing this new employable pool of labor with the right companies requires a more nimble, innovative approach like the one offered by Career Academy.
During its first five years of operation, Aspire projects that Career Academy will train 180 adults with disabilities for careers. 113 of these participants will complete the program and secure community-based jobs paying competitive wages in the range of $8.25 to $15.00/hr., including some of whom will work full-time with benefits. Beginning in year six of operation, we anticipate 50 participants will secure community-based jobs annually going forward.
The Career Academy will benefit its participants by increasing their independence, dignity, selfworth, and economic self-sufficiency through community inclusion. Improved economic selfsufficiency is particularly important in Illinois because the current state budget crisis could
negatively impact future employment services for people with developmental disabilities. The long-term benefits to Career Academy graduates and their families will be life-changing as the graduates become empowered to enjoy a higher quality of life that includes greater personal choices about employment, living arrangements, social gatherings and leisure activities.
For each of our programs, Aspire establishes measurable outcome goals to assess impact on the lives of people served. In addition to programmatic goals, each participant has an Individualized Service Plan with personalized goals that are monitored and reviewed with the participant and their family to ensure progress is made and that the goals are realistic and achievable.