Help Wanted


Job Training for Special Needs Young Adults

When it comes to putting together pizza boxes at Peter Piper Pizza, Viva Selena Marie Lopez, 22, is a pro and she loves doing it. Like many other 22-year-olds, Viva thrives from being social and interacting with her co-workers, but she is not like many other young adults. Viva was born with Down syndrome and other developmental challenges.

Viva, who graduated in May from Palmview High School, does not let her disability hold her back, explained her mother, Jane Lopez.

“She’s so nice and kind-hearted. She likes to meet new people and say hello,” Lopez said. “Yes, she does have a mind of child, but she has her own aspirations and I am here to just support her in anyway I can.”

From participating in beauty pageants since she was 6 years old to serving on the varsity cheer team in high school, Viva is definitely outgoing and strives for success.

“Viva is ready to start working. She doesn’t want to just sit at home. She wants to be out exploring and learning new things,” Lopez said. “She is very much into makeup and hair right now and is in love with her green highlights. Her ultimate dream is to go to cosmetology school.”

Lopez has been busy trying to prepare employment for Viva at one of the local pizza places.

“Viva and other kids with disabilities can do whatever they put their mind to,” Lopez said. “For Viva, she is capable, she can do everything, but just slower and maybe with a few imperfections.”

“Right now, it’s just about finding the right job for Viva,” Lopez added.

Individuals with Down syndrome or other disabilities do make valuable employees, but often the lack of opportunity is the obstacle.

Capable Kids Foundation Board President Melanie Watson has been working on a program to provide young adults with special needs opportunities for job-coaching, on-the-job training, and employment at businesses that are open to hiring employees with unique challenges.

Capable Kids is 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity that was formed to help improve the quality of life of children with special needs in the Rio Grande Valley by providing recreational sports and activities. Over the past two years, 500 children with special needs have participated in the program.

“Capable Kids gives children with disabilities and their families a variety of activities and events to participate in,” Watson said. “We know what a struggle it can be to do these types of events without careful planning and worry.”

Watson has worked as a pediatric physical therapist for the past 12 years, working with everyone from infants to patients in their 20s.

“Working with children and teens with disabilities has been a huge part of my life and as I have gotten to know these children and their parents, I’ve learned that there are more struggles that families have to think about, such as what will happen to their children once they complete high school,” Watson said. “Adding an on-the-job training program to our list of services is going to mean that we can make a bigger impact on the lives of the families we serve.The stronger our participants are in all areas of life, the stronger our community is.”

When Watson announced that Capable Kids would be adding an on-the-job training program, looking at programs like the one at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District was a priority.

Pathway to Independence

The Pathways Toward Independence (PTI) Program at PSJA ISD helps support on-the-job training for students with disabilities and/or special needs.

In May, two special needs students from PSJA ISD claimed their spot in the employment world after graduating high school. Noah Veliz and Janie Gonzalez were the first to complete the PTI Program. They both graduated with a South Texas College Continuing Education Certificate in Employability Skills, Basic Floral Design, Basic Cake Decorating, and Basic Photography.

Veliz is working at NAFT Federal Credit Union and Gonzalez is employed at Irma’s Sweete Shoppe in Pharr, said PSJA ISD Special Education Department PTI Director Veronica Quintana.

“Our PSJA ISD special education teachers receive training through STC in areas such as bakery, landscaping, and basic photography, then they use those learned skills to teach our students,” Quintana said.

Students in the PTI Program take the required courses to receive their certificates, and also intern at local businesses. These opportunities assist them by expanding their life and employability skills. The teachers accompany the students to the job site and train them.

There are currently eight businesses participating in the program, but Quintana is always looking for more. Since the program started, students have been able to take these skills to local employers, such as At Home, Best Buy, Dairy Queen, Goodwill, Peter Piper Pizza, Pharr Memorial Library, Irma’s Sweete Shoppe, Vany’s Flower Shop, and Quinta Mazatlan.

“I am most proud of the fact of the end result, which is walking into the credit union and seeing one of our students with a smile on their face, doing what they love,” Quintana said.

According to Quintana, most special needs children enter high school at the age of 14 and age out of the program at 21 years old. Unfortunately, not all students have the cognitive ability to participate in the PTI Program, but that doesn’t mean they don’t learn development skills to help them be as self-sustained as possible.

“When the students have completed all of their required high school credits and state assessments, parents often ask, ‘What’s next?’ And for that reason we developed a program to teach and train our students on daily fundamental activities, but also job skills,” Quintana said.

Matching Job to Student

At PSJA ISD, the special education teachers spend about three to four hour a day at a PTI job site. The way the jobs are matched are based on skills and interests.

“Next year we will have 30 students in the program and five of those will be graduating in May 2018,” Quintana said.

From working at a carwash to working as an administrative assistant, there are several requests that have come from students.

“We need to find local businesses that are willing to work with our program to help build skills that will help enhance the quality of life of these young adults,” Quintana said.

About Capable Kids

Phone: (956) 277-1776