$1.25M grant supports youth with disabilities

Project PEACE, led by VCU School of Education researchers, aims to support employment of youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

One employee helps another employee with a disability in the workplace.
Project PEACE builds on Partnership for People with Disabilities research that shows the benefits of employment for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. (Getty Images)

By Brian McNeill

A project led by Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education researchers has been awarded a $1.25 million grant to improve employment opportunities and outcomes for youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Richmond and Colonial Heights.

The five-year grant from the Administration for Community Living in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will support Project PEACE (Promoting Employment After high school through Community Expertise), which will seek to build community capacity to sustain employment opportunities for youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“The main objective of Project PEACE is to improve paid community outcomes and postsecondary education for youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” said Seb Prohn, Ph.D., principal investigator for Project PEACE and a senior research and evaluation analyst with the Partnership for People with Disabilities at VCU. “However, it’s not just about youth gaining more skills and experiences, though that is a key feature. It’s about communities collectively developing capacities and solutions so that they’re better prepared to support and ultimately benefit from capable, reliable and often essential workers with [intellectual and developmental disabilities].”

The project will be a collaboration of VCU’s Center on Transition Innovations; VCU’s Center for Family Involvement, part of the Partnership for People with Disabilities; and the Metropolitan Business League; in partnership with multiple state and local agencies — including Richmond Public Schools and Colonial Heights Public Schools — as well as community organizations, and youth with disabilities and their families.

“We are thrilled to receive this grant and to work closely with community members from Richmond and Colonial Heights on improving employment outcomes for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” said Parthenia Dinora, Ph.D., interim executive director of the Partnership for People with Disabilities. “I can't wait to see what will be accomplished [by this project] in the next five years.”

Kathleen Moritz Rudasill, Ph.D., a professor and senior associate dean for research at the School of Education, said the Partnership for People with Disabilities is “a leader in the field of developmental and intellectual disabilities and is also a tremendous community partner, as evidenced by this grant. We are excited about this opportunity for this team to advance this work.”

The grant is from the Administration for Community Living’s Projects of National Significance, which focuses on the most pressing issues affecting people with developmental disabilities and their families, creating and enhancing opportunities for these individuals to contribute to, and participate in, all facets of community life.

Project PEACE will bring together people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, family members, teachers, employers and service providers to identify community strengths that can be leveraged to sustain employment for these young people.

The VCU Center for Transition Innovations will work to prepare school personnel and youth. The Metropolitan Business League will provide support to businesses to better support employees with disabilities. And the VCU Center for Family Involvement will work with the ARC to help prepare parents to support their children as they pursue employment and higher education.

“Project PEACE is not another initiative where external experts tell communities how to fix problems,” Prohn said. “Stakeholders know so much more about the ins and outs of how their communities function, including significant strengths, pressures and barriers. The collective wisdom of communities — people with disabilities, service providers, business owners, educators and others — can lead to changes unattainable by any one researcher with any set of ideas, and I’m proud that this project acknowledges that and places it front and center.”

The team anticipates around 50 students, 50 families, 15 businesses and up to 25 school personnel will participate in Project PEACE’s capacity building efforts. And between 24 and 35 youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities are expected to participate in paid community employment experiences through the project.

The project builds on research conducted by the Partnership for People with Disabilities that found when people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are employed, they are more likely to participate in their communities, to have more control over their lives, and to have their rights honored and respected.

“Employment can have health, mental health and social benefits as well,” Prohn said. “Whether you have a disability or not, you’re likely going to be better off when you work.”

The grant follows a recent $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs to an interdisciplinary team at the School of Education to prepare early intervention personnel, early childhood special educators and social workers to improve family and early childhood mental health outcomes of young children with significant disabilities and their families.

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