Pennsylvania Senator Sean Wiley recently spent the morning getting to know the students, faculty and curriculum of the Oasis program at Mercyhurst North East and saw firsthand how students with disabilities are receiving skills training and gaining employment.

Wiley is supporting the “Work Experience for High School Students with Disabilities Act,” which would help adults with disabilities get the support they need to land jobs after graduation.

Oasis, a one-year, non-credit certificate program supported by the state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR), has been doing just that since 2008.

“We thought that since Sen. Wiley supports this bill it might be helpful for him to see a successful training program in action,” said program director James Conroy, noting that nearly 80 percent of the Oasis students who finish the program get jobs.

Last year, Oasis received a $60,000 grant from the D.R.E.A.M. Partnership to extend its reach into this underserved population. One of the primary uses for the grant was to establish a residential component allowing Oasis students to live on the North East campus. In the first year of the residential option, Oasis already has one student living on campus.

Conroy hopes the new residential component will make Oasis more accessible to other interested students, as it will allow students from outside the geographic region to attend more easily.

“In the past, we couldn’t draw students too far beyond Erie County because a lot of the students we serve rely on public transportation or family and friends to get them to and from campus,” Conroy said. “Now that they have the option to live on campus, they don’t have to worry about travel.”

The grant also allowed Oasis to launch a concentration in early childhood education this year, in addition to concentrations in culinary arts and hospitality. The new concentration trains students to work as aides in childcare centers and preschool, kindergarten and primary-grade settings. It’s proven a popular concentration, Conroy said, enrolling two out of this year’s five Oasis students.

Under the proposed bill, meanwhile, the OVR would be required to collaborate with local education officials and other public agencies such as county mental health and intellectual disabilities programs in the development of Individual Educational Plans for high school students with disabilities. It would also be responsible for arranging, monitoring and supporting the placement of high school students with disabilities in internships, on-the-job training programs or full or part-time work in the public or private sector.

Adults ages 18 and up, their parents, professionals and the community are invited to learn more about the Oasis program during an Open House on Friday, Feb. 19, from noon to 1:30 p.m. in the Great Room of the Ridge Library at Mercyhurst North East. Call 725-6299 for more information.

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