by Brittany O'Grady, RAMP Coordinator, Independent Living Resource Center of Northeast Florida
In Jacksonville, FL, the Ready to Achieve Mentoring Program (RAMP) operated by the Independent Living Resource Center of Northeast Florida provides career-focused mentoring to youth who have autism at Nathan Bedford Forest High School. While I have worked with and taught students with a wide range of disabilities, I had never worked with or been around someone with autism until I started the program. I had heard the term autism before, but didn’t know what to expect. My first day meeting the youth was an exciting one. Each young person had something incredibly unique and interesting about them, more so than any other teen I had met before. For example, one student could tell you anyone’s birthday you asked for, along with the day of the week it fell on each year.
Throughout this program, mentors have been working with the youth to help them prepare for postsecondary education and the workforce. At each RAMP meeting, the mentors help the youth set weekly goals. Depending on their functioning abilities, the RAMP coordinator offers choices of goals for those youth who need help thinking of goals for themselves.
The youth are learning about various options for their future through college campus tours and job site visits. Last year, the youth took a tour of the different jobs Goodwill Industries has to offer. It was great exposure for these youth because they pictured Goodwill as just their local retail store. The youth are also learning new skills through various program activities. For their RAMP kick off event, the program rented a popcorn and cotton candy machine, so that the youth could learn job skills associated with hospitality. Grilling hamburgers and boiling eggs on the stove were just a few of the cooking activities the youth participated in this year. It was the first time some of them had ever picked up a spatula.
This year the youth wanted to help out one of their local organizations. To give back to their community, they decided to volunteer to help with the upkeep and yard work at the Catty Shack Ranch in Jacksonville. The Catty Shack Ranch is a non-profit wildlife sanctuary for various cat species that relies solely on volunteers and donations. Their primary focus is rescuing cats from serious situations. Their current residents include tigers, lions, cougars, leopards, and arctic foxes.
During their time at the sanctuary, the youth’s mentors showed them how to paint enclosures for the cats to play in. Once the youth saw their mentors paint, they were able to work on their own. When painted areas didn’t require ladders, the youth would work in teams where one person would paint the horizontal bars and the other would paint the vertical bars.
The youth were also shown how to paint and decorate the platforms and play area for the cats to play in. Once they were shown how to use stencils and spray paint, they were able to complete the task with minimal help from their mentor.
A few mentees helped their mentor pull bamboo out of the garden.
Hands-on experience is the key to helping the youth learn. Once they see something done and are able to practice and repeat the steps needed to complete a task, they are successful. For most of the youth, this was their first time ever volunteering and the majority of them didn’t understand the term, “community service,” until they successfully completed their first project at the sanctuary. I feel honored to be a part of something as impactful as the RAMP program and hope that the youth find the beauty within their autism, as I have.
To learn more about autism and resources for supporting youth with autism, visit the National Autism Resource and Information Center’s website at www.autismnow.org.
Youth and adults with autism can get involved in the Autism Self Advocacy Network.