Learning for life

Learning for life Learning for life Learning for life

Individuals build careers and explore interests without limits

The Arc San Francisco
While at the Microsoft Store, The Arc SF's clients become comfortable with technology they'll apply in their future work.

Ideally, everyone would have the chance to explore their career interests and land a job in their chosen field. Many do that after high school as they also learn the basic life skills that are part of being an adult—how to do laundry, date, pay bills, vote, and so much more.

For more than 60 years, The Arc San Francisco (The Arc SF) has been helping adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities learn skills to live their lives to the maximum of their abilities. The success of The Arc’s clients challenges assumptions about what someone with a disability can achieve.

Five times a week, you’ll find clients and staff of The Arc SF in the Microsoft Store in Westfield San Francisco Centre. They participate in a variety of classes or other group activities to learn tech-based skills and pursue their career goals. Microsoft supports The Arc’s mission by furnishing classroom space, donating and enabling equipment use, and providing support staff at the store. Store employees also volunteer regularly at The Arc SF’s Friends Like Me events where clients meet up for activities such as cooking, game, and movie nights.

“We’re able to bring somebody who’s answering your business need and doing it in a creative way.”

— Kristen Pedersen, Director of Employment and Education Programs The Arc San Francisco
Michelle Mallon receives coaching from The Arc's Project SEARCH coordinator Dan Weidman as she prepares for an internship with an area employer.

No cookie cutters
The Arc SF’s connection to Microsoft was born out of both need and opportunity, according to Jessica Krieger, an Arc Project SEARCH internship coordinator who has been teaching her clients at the store since 2013. The Arc’s Project SEARCH is a vocational and educational program where participants at real-world work sites rotate through different departments over a nine-month period to build skills and become more employable. The program’s success is remarkable; 96 percent of interns are employed in competitive jobs upon completion of the program.

In the past, people with developmental and intellectual disabilities who finished high school were usually placed in a static framework of support. They might spend every day at a facility where they engaged in simple activities to pass the time. Or they could land an entry-level job that, even if unsatisfying, they seldom left because of the fear of permanent unemployment.

The Arc’s approach is designed to offer professional and personal growth through lifelong learning and achievement for people of all ages. They help over 850 adult clients in San Francisco, San Mateo, and Marin counties to reach their goals. “We don’t have a cookie cutter design,” emphasizes Colin Celio, associate director of employment. “Each person comes in and says ‘these are my goals; this is what I want’ and then we do individual plans.” Expectations are high, and progress toward goals is constantly monitored.

The Arc SF clients’ career interests and talents are wide-ranging, as are their disabilities—including autism, Down syndrome, and many others. But Celio believes that a major barrier to all their clients’ access to meaningful work is based in expectations. “A lot of people in the community—even in a great city like San Francisco—don’t really understand the full potential of a person with a developmental disability.” He observes that employers seldom offer new or expanded responsibilities to their clients, even when the individual is more than capable of rising to the challenge.

Preparing for a career
While at the store, coordinators like Krieger teach general computer literacy and tech skills as well as those that are specific to the client’s internship of choice. “One of the reasons that [partnering with Microsoft] has been such a tremendous resource is because we need a lot of technology to do basically anything,” she asserts. “It’s all online now. It’s fundamental…We can’t get there without the technology.”

The internship program has a profound impact on participants, even from the beginning. Project SEARCH Coordinator Dan Weidman reports that at least half of his clients’ families marvel at the difference in independence and attitude. He credits the program structure and his clients’ enthusiasm for the transformation: “They really want to learn and so having that opportunity really shows.”

After placement in an internship or job, The Arc SF provides individualized coaching and support for employees and managers at no cost, for as long as needed. “We’re helping our clients get jobs and keep those jobs,” says Celio. The ultimate goal is for clients to be so competent that they don’t need further support. The Arc SF’s staff actively identifies positions at work sites that a client could fill and suggests further opportunities for growth in a current position.

Project SEARCH is only one aspect of The Arc SF’s comprehensive employment programs. Education extends beyond job skills to encompass social factors, work/life balance, managing benefits, adapting to change, and more.

The Arc SF uses the Microsoft Store’s theater space as a technology and job skills classroom. L-R: Rhea Cundangan, Rebecca Casto, and Brandon Hom.

Employers win in many ways
“Because our interns are so well-prepared, we are able to answer really critical staffing needs,” says Kristen Pedersen, director of employment and education programs. “We have many people that are willing to work full-time or part-time—offering much more flexibility than you might find in the general workforce. There’s low turnover and very high dedication to the work, plus we provide appropriate support at no cost to the employer. We’re able to bring somebody who’s answering your business need and doing it in a creative way. And the bonus of that is that you’re meeting a diversity and inclusion goal. But that’s an added benefit; that’s not the core of what we’re doing.”

Clients of The Arc SF each receive the support, services and opportunities that suit them as individuals.

Positions earned by The Arc SF’s clients include an assistant recruiter for a staffing firm—who manages schedules and candidate travel—software testers in high-tech quality assurance, IT staff who ensure that equipment is set up for new hires, and conference room facilitators that ensure spaces are clean and well supplied for every meeting. Pedersen emphasizes that the goal is a meaningful career: “We want to make sure that our clients are in jobs that are sustainable and offer opportunities for growth.”

If you’d like individuals with disabilities to reach their potential, offer an internship or position to a client of The Arc, share your specific skill set as a volunteer, or provide meeting space for classes and activities. Much more information, including other creative ways to help, can be found at thearcsf.org.