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It takes a village: Moving Forward Towards Independence offers hope and life lessons to young adults with learning disabilities.

For many young adults, learning how to cope in the world after high school is a challenge. In fact, for most, it's a rather complex process. Figuring out what to do, then finding a job, managing finances and paying bills, getting along with a roommate for the first time, figuring out that cooking means more than nuking something in the microwave. Each of these involves a learning process and when tackled all at once, can be overwhelming to even the most capable among us. Now imagine attempting to take it all on with extra cognitive challenges. That's what the residents of Napa, California-based Moving Forward Towards Independence face--with enthusiasm and courage--every day.

A nonprofit organization founded in 1998 by a group of parents, Moving Forward is a unique residential program where young adults with disabilities learn to enjoy productive, fulfilling and healthy lives within a caring, responsive community made up of fellow residents, trained staff members, parents and various representatives of volunteer organizations and businesses in the greater Napa community. To date, nearly one hundred young adults, ranging in age from 18 to 37, have participated in the program. Many have progressed so much as to be able to move on to their own apartments nearby, maintaining their connection to the Moving Forward community through the many friendships they've formed, and through classes, social activities and case management services. Many have jobs in the community, perform volunteer work, and/or attend nearby Napa Valley Community College.

Whether they struggle with a severe learning disability or ADHD, high functioning autism, Asperger's or a mild developmental disability, each and every resident has their own set of unique challenges. But one thing they all have in common is their incredible abilities. Here are some of their heartwarming and inspiring stories:

Soraya

Age: 24

Hometown: Berkeley, CA

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Soraya was very shy upon arrival at Moving Forward in 2008. In fact, she had always been very shy and withdrawn, according to her mother, Katie, a second grade teacher. She'd always had problems socializing and making friends, and faces pragmatic learning disabilities as she copes with mild autistic tendencies.

"Since joining Moving Forward, Soraya has just blossomed," comments Katie. "She has had the opportunity to grow socially so much more than ever before, and her verbal confidence and ability to understand and be flexible within social situations has dramatically improved. At Moving Forward, I started to realize that with Soraya, it's not so much about learning how to cook, but about learning how to find the confidence to do it." Other programs Katie considered didn't offer the experiential learning and the ongoing community present at Moving Forward. "I love how there's such tremendous support at the Elm Street location, moving on to 'faded support' as she becomes more independent," adds Katie.

Soraya is now employed by WineBev, a Napa-based social enterprise organization run by United Cerebral Palsy of the North Bay, and will soon be moving into an apartment with a roommate near Moving Forward's Elm Street base. She is an avid painter, and loves to paint oceans and sea life using acrylics on canvas. She now has a large network of friends, and only talks to her mom once a week, when she can "fit it in," according to Katie. "I really like Moving Forward," says Soraya. "The people are the best."

"Parents have to be the holders of the dream," says Katie. "Sometimes that means we need to see the capabilities through the disabilities. At Moving Forward, Soraya is finding those."

John

Age: 33

Hometown: Salem, Oregon

One of Moving Forward's earliest participants, John has been with the program since 2001. He started out by living in the men's house, then "graduated" to the Franklin Street apartments and finally to an apartment within the community as he acquired the skills and confidence needed to live independently. A very charismatic fellow, John's mild developmental disability doesn't prevent him from having a very fulfilling life. He participates in Moving Forward's job club and community living classes, cooks with his cooking group once a week (although he's more of a "goer outer," as he puts it), has a girlfriend (also in the program), and loves to sleep in on the weekends when he's off work. His current roommate is Jake, a friend from the Moving Forward program.

John, also an employee of WineBev, works five days a week at Sutter Home Winery's Green Island bottling plant, and has been instrumental in a new program designed to recycle and reclaim scrap material, which saved the winery thousands of dollars in its first six months. The program is key to Sutter's objectives toward reducing their environmental impact.

"We are an ISO 9001 quality management certified company, so everyone that comes into contact with our products has a strict responsibility to handle the merchandise with care and uphold our quality," comments Scott Childers, production manager at Sutter Home. "John takes his job very seriously. He is happy to be here, and his enthusiasm is contagious. He and the other WineBev employees have such a positive attitude--they provide a huge morale boost for the other 100-plus employees we have out on the floor."

"My favorite thing about Moving Forward is the activities," says John. "Sometimes we go into the City, like to a baseball game or to Pier 39. The outings are really fun."

Andi

Age: 21

Hometown: Overland Park, Kansas

Andi came to Moving Forward right after completing high school in her hometown of Overland Park, Kansas, where she attended a public school and participated in "regular" classes as well as classes held in the school's special education learning center. With challenges ranging from ADHD and OCD to ODD, anxiety and depression, Andi had always had a difficult time socially. Since she joined Moving Forward in 2008, Andi has flourished.

"This is the first time in her life that she has been truly happy for a long period of time," explains Andi's dad Jeff, a high school English teacher. "We looked at several other programs nationwide, but this seemed to be the best fit. We wanted an environment that fosters a feeling of accomplishment, one that works to build self respect and self esteem, so that Andi would be able to make independent decisions about her life with confidence and ability. At Moving Forward, she feels wanted, needed, and valued by the other residents as well as the staff.

"She is always excited about something when I talk to her," continues Jeff. "We went to New York at Christmas, and she got a subway map and was telling the rest of us where to go; she's not afraid anymore, and she has so much more confidence."

Andi is now seeking employment, after having gained work experience at Goodwill and through Moving Forward's community volunteer work program. She attends many of Moving Forward's classes including music, cooking, women's relations, budgeting, health and skincare, and plays keyboard in the Moving Forward band.

"Moving Forward gives you structure," observes Andi. "And friends. I have a lot now."

Bob

Age: 22

Hometown: Corte Madera, California

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After graduating from the Star Academy, a private, non-profit special education school in San Anselmo, California, Bob came to Moving Forward in 2006. While his Asperger's had always made socialization a challenge for Bob, his keen mind for geography and cartography always makes for an interesting and informative conversation.

"Bob can tell you how to get from anywhere in the country to anywhere else, which highways to take and what you'll pass on the way," marvels Donna Feingold, executive director of Moving Forward. "He's just amazing. In fact, all of our resident are really amazing."

"I'm a full time courtesy clerk at Raley's," boasts Bob. "I'm a bagger, plus sometimes I help clean the store in the morning." To get to work, Bob rides his bike from his apartment about a mile away, sometimes at 4:30 in the morning when he's on the early shift. If it's raining, his case manager picks him up, or he takes a cab. Bob found employment at Raley's through the Napa Valley Support Services (NVSS), a community-based agency.

"Watching Bob work, with an ever present pep in his step and an energy that practically emits sparks, it's easy to see why Raley's management recently chose to use Bob as a role model for the level of customer service they'd like all their employees to display," reads the NVSS 2007 Annual Report. "They call it 'finding your inner Bob;' giving great customer services with a positive attitude."

Bob has his driver's license, and plans to get a car this summer. He lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment, but often plays host to his many friends from Moving Forward who have come over for dinner, to watch a movie or play video games.

"On Monday nights I go to the leadership class to learn safety and apartment life skills," explains Bob. "I play guitar in the band on Tuesday nights, and I cook with the apartment cooking group once a week, and host the dinner here at my apartment once a month." Bob's favorite things to cook? He likes to make pasta, sausages, meatball sandwiches and pizza.

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Jennifer

Age: 32

Hometown: Walnut Creek, California

Another Moving Forward veteran, Jennifer joined the program in 1999 right out of high school and is a member of one of the original six founding families. After living in the women's house at Moving Forward's Elm Street location for two years, Jen moved into a shared apartment with a fellow program participant in 2001. Since 2003, Jen has worked through Napa Personnel Systems (NPS), the employment division of NVSS at Lixit Animal Care Products in Napa, a manufacturer of pet water bottles and feeders. She has done so well in this job placement, Jen is now a job coach running a three-person crew and responsible for monthly management reports.

"I've known Jen for eight years, first as her job coach and now as her supervisor and I've seen her grow in so many ways," comments Meridith Allen, an employment specialist with NPS. "Jen initially stated that her math was bad, but she now runs a production crew where she had to use multipliers to figure out productivity. She always takes initiative. Jen's position as a job coach associate has motivated other individuals that we serve to dream big."

"I was very nervous when I first came to Moving Forward," explains Jen, who was born with Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber Syndrome, a rare, congenital medical condition in which blood vessels and/or lymph vessels fail to perform properly. "It was hard for me to adjust to all of the kids. It took me about three months, but the more friends I made, the more comfortable I was."

Jen supplements her income from Lixit by knitting baby hats and selling them at craft fairs held at the regional center. She also makes hats for people who are sick. She likes to cook, especially Mexican food, fish and chicken, and participates in Moving Forward's art, exercise and relationship classes. She also loves the weekend activities.

Moving Forward Towards Independence is both a transitional and life-long program. The Transition Program provides for 24-hour supervision and a great deal of structure preparing residents to move into their own homes and apartments in the community. When residents are ready, they progress to the Community Living Program, where one-on-one case management services as well as full access to group activities, classes and services are provided. To learn more about Moving Forward, visit www.moving-forward.org or call 707/259-1125.
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Title Annotation:EMPLOYMENT & Transitioning
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2010
Words:1936
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