As you know, the Weinberg Foundation recently determined that its seven areas of giving—Older Adults, Workforce Development, Education, Disabilities, Basic Human Needs & Health, Veterans, and General Community Support—should be merged into five focus areas: Housing, Health, Jobs, Education, and Community Services. The Foundation, of course, remains dedicated to meeting the needs of specific populations, one of which is people with disabilities.

The goal? To help individuals with disabilities integrate into their communities and achieve as much independence as possible. Most recently, the Foundation has focused on supported employment and housing opportunities for adults with disabilities. We believe that these types of services are critical to fulfilling one’s potential in life.

But, after completing a yearlong scan of the Foundation’s grantmaking in the disabilities field, we have decided to shift our focus toward youth transitioning into adulthood—often referred to as “transition-age youth.” It is estimated that 50,000 youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder alone reach adulthood every year. Being thrust into the real world after high school is called the “cliff” because the school-based services that were in place until age 21 suddenly disappear. Parents and their children must navigate a new system with different regulations and different service providers.  

Consider this story from one of the Foundation’s grantees, Itineris—a Baltimore-based nonprofit supporting young adults with autism. Michael (this young man’s name changed to protect confidentiality) is a 26-year-old man diagnosed with autism who was born and raised in Baltimore City. He attended St. Elizabeth’s School in Baltimore and graduated with a certificate of completion. Unfortunately, at the end of his final year at St. Elizabeth’s, Michael was not “picked up” by any of the local adult agencies, and he remained at home for almost a year. So his family applied to Itineris. The admissions committee knew, that despite the lengthy gap in services between school and adult placement, Itineris was the place for him. 

Michael had a tough start though, given that he had not received services for an entire year. One challenge for him in particular was aggressive behavior, and in response to this challenge, the team at Itineris created a program specifically tailored to Michael’s needs. And most importantly, Itineris never gave up. Day by day, Michael was able to overcome his challenges, and he now comes to Itineris beaming. Most days, he goes out into the community, and some days he even goes to work. If Itineris had not taken a chance on Michael, he would have been left behind having fallen from the proverbial “cliff.”

This story is just one example of the many difficulties transition-age youth and their families face. In addition, we recognize that the field is changing rapidly. We understand that the Foundation’s grantees are undergoing significant changes to offer services within the communities they serve rather than in centralized buildings. And while this transformation is challenging, it is also incredibly exciting, as it recognizes that there are many options for people with disabilities to access in order to participate in, and contribute to, their communities.

The Foundation is actively seeking organizations in its priority communities that have ideas about how best to assist transition-age youth and their families. In particular, the Foundation is interested in employment programs, independent housing, and health care. How are you helping these young adults fulfill their potential in life? How are you preparing them and their families for what lies ahead after age 21? How can we leverage the state and federal funds that exist to create new models? How are you tracking your work over time?

The Foundation is also interested in strengthening Direct Support Professionals who play a critical role in the lives of young adults with disabilities. There is a turnover rate of roughly 40 percent annually in these jobs, largely due to low wages and demanding work. Some of the Foundation’s grantees are addressing this crisis through credentialing, incentives, and wage increases. But the Foundation wants to hear how you think the field can best recruit and retain DSPs.

Reach out to me at akleine@hjweinberg.org with your thoughts, questions, and ideas.