Traverse City Record Eagle: “Transitions: Families, professionals plan for post-school years.”

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Dawn McConnell wonders what her son William should do when his high school years end a year from now.

William can graduate with a special education diploma, or put his diploma on hold and go on for job training through the intermediate school district until age 26.

The decision is just around the corner and McConnell still isn’t sure what’s the best choice.

The McConnells were among the 53 families and more than 70 professionals who attended the Northern Lakes Community Mental Health conference on Self-Determination and Successful School Transitions last month in Lake City.

“I was delighted to learn about all the options that may be available for my son,” McConnell said. “It’s absolutely inspiring.”

The conference focused on plans for the “transition years,” when young adults with disabilities move from high school into their adult lives.

Annette Downey, executive director of Community Living Services of Oakland County, said, “It’s important to plan for this transition, so that when the school bus stops coming it’s the start of something awesome.”

One way to plan is to build off an Individualized Education Plan, used throughout a student’s education, to a “Person Centered Plan” that can be used for adult mental health, employment and volunteering.

“It’s the same concept, except the planning at this stage needs to be expanded beyond just education,” said Lisa Ballien, director of community support and school transition for Community Living Services. “The process begins with dreaming about the future you want, developing a vision of what that looks like, and outlining a strategy to make it happen.”

For instance, she said, earning money doesn’t necessarily meant a 9-to-5 job.

“People should look for jobs or develop businesses that fit a person’s lifestyle, interests and personality,” said Ballien.

Matthew “Ian” Lafferty explained his cleaning business, David DeWitt Taylor talked about his disc jockey business and Keith McFall went through how he started TopCat Enterprises, which produces kindling kits made of seasoned wood, fire starter and newspaper.

“We use recycled materials when possible, and are contacting campgrounds and other retail outlets to distribute our kits,” said his caregiver, Mary Wilson. Their business cards say, “Get your fire roaring quick with our handy kindling kit.”

Lyn Hughes is part of a group that recently received nonprofit status for its “After 26 Project.” Hughes says the group is working on a Web site and looking for funding to start a restaurant to support training and employment for people with developmental disabilities.

“The more ‘normal’ you treat your loved ones, the more they can achieve,” Hughes said. “I find that I sometimes put limitations out there that are unnecessary.”

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