|UTPA has joined the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (DARS), South Texas College (STC) and other institutions to help students with disabilities receive job training and find employment. Pictured from left to right are: Jim Hanophy, DARS assistant commissioner; Steve Ahlenius, president & CEO of McAllen Chamber of Commerce; Laura Villarreal, DARS Project HIRE director and DARS regional transition specialist; Dr. Bruce Reed, professor and assistant dean of UTPA's College of Health Sciences and Human Services; Dr. Robert S. Nelsen, UTPA president; Debra Wanser, DARS commissioner; Rudy Martinez, DARS regional director; Raymond Lee, EMR Consulting Group; Dr. Shirley Reed, STC president; and Paul Hernandez, STC dean of student support services.|
The Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities (TCDD) recently awarded $225,000 to the DARS Project HIRE-Helping Individuals Reach Employment toward a total five-year, $1.25 million grant that will assist 50 Hidalgo County students enrolling at STC this fall who have developmental disabilities.
On April 3, representatives from the partnering groups announced the launch of the program at the McAllen Chamber of Commerce.
UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen addressed a crowded room, telling everyone about the University's commitment to the community, including how blue lights were installed on campus in honor of National Autism Awareness Month.
"Working with STC is one of the most joyous things I have; it gives us an opportunity to make a tremendous difference and actually reach out and touch the community," Nelsen said. "UT Pan Am is dedicated to transforming the Valley. It isn't very often that our federal government and our state government get it right, but with this project, Project HIRE, they finally got it right."
Under the grant, UTPA will provide educational coaches to the students, who are between the ages of 18 and 25 years old. The coaches will assist them one-on-one in all facets of college life, including tutoring and making sure the students know how to advocate for themselves.
The University will also help the students, once they complete STC, with finding them jobs if they have not already found employment.
Partners in the project also include Workforce Solutions, Access Granted Technology Services, Communication Access Ability Group of South Texas, DARS Division for Blind Services, and a 12-member Project Advisory Committee from the local disability, business, and education community. STC President Shirley Reed welcomed the incoming students and said it was a privilege for the college to be a partner in HIRE.
"This vision for South Texas College always has been improving the quality of life in our communities and for all the families in our community," Reed said. "We have always had the steadfast commitment to serve students with disabilities and helping them find gainful employment so they have a good quality of life."
State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (Dist. 27), State Rep. Aaron Peña (Dist. 40), as well as representatives for U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (TX-15) and State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa (Dist. 20) all spoke in support of the project and how it will benefit the community and the state.
DARS is using the Rio Grande Valley initiative as a pilot program to see how it can be implemented throughout the state, said Jim Hanophy, DARS assistant commissioner.
"We're going to be learning from you guys, the participants," Hanophy said. "You're going to teach us lessons, but the lessons you're going to teach us while you're being successful are going to help us take what we learn and do this in other parts of the state, so that we continue to put Texas on the map as the leader when it comes to helping those with disabilities go to work and contribute to this economy."