Madeline Payne is an eleventh grade student at Owensboro Innovation Academy who teachers would have described as shy and reserved, that is until she found her voice thanks to an innovative community partnership with Puzzle Pieces.
Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS) prepare students aged 14-21 with an IEP or 504 plan for transition into adulthood, for college enrollment and/or successful employment. This programming focuses on job exploration, work-based learning experiences, counseling on post-secondary education, workplace readiness and self-advocacy. Pre-ETS is funded through Vocational Rehabilitation and can be administered by service providers like Puzzle Pieces.
According to OIA Guidance Counselor Jaime Main, Pre-ETS is making a big difference in the lives of the 11 OIA students in the program, including Madeline.
“Madeline has not always had the tools to advocate for what she wanted,” Main said. “Starting Pre-ETS allowed her to gain the skills and confidence to have a voice to speak up and challenged her to step outside of her comfort zone to learn about careers she had never thought of before.”
Since starting in the program, Madeline started a new club at school, explored several new careers, and even spoke at a meeting in front of 25-30 adults about how much Pre-ETS has helped her excel.
For Madeline’s mom, Heather Payne, Pre-ETS has helped answer a lot of questions.
“My biggest worry is about what will happen to her when I’m not here anymore,” Heather said.
But the Pre-ETS program has opened up a world of possibilities for Madeline, reducing Heather’s worry about her daughter’s future.
“The expectation for more is there,” Heather said. “My daughter will be a contributing citizen. She has interests, talents and skills she would have never discovered otherwise. And she sees that she is going to grow up and doesn’t have to stay at home and let other people live their lives without her.”
Inspired by the success of this partnership, Owensboro Public Schools Special Education Director Carrie Wedding is partnering with Puzzle Pieces to form a “Transition Think Tank” to look at the bigger picture when it comes to student transitions in special education.
“It became clear that we only think of transition as the last phase of a student’s P-12 education,” Wedding said. “The Transition Think Tank is allowing us to re-frame ‘what is transition?’ OPS will be able to begin looking at our students with disabilities not in one year increments, but as contributing members of our community whether they are 3 with an IEP or age 21.”
According to Wedding, if a student qualifies for services at age 3, her team needs to think, “What skills do they need to be college, career or independent living ready?”
Wedding says that OPS students and teachers will benefit from a clear progression of skills that lead them to a productive adulthood.
“This work will allow us to identify clear parameters around what our students need at each grade and then we can designate appropriate resources to make sure teachers are equipped to meet those needs,” she said.
Currently, OPS serves 822 students from preschool to grade 14 in special education, who are taught by 64 certified teachers.
Puzzle Pieces Executive Director Amanda Owen says that all Kentucky schools face the challenge of improving transition for students with disabilities.
“This community partnership with OPS is thinking outside the box in order to ensure students’ success,” Owen said. “The end goal is to champion a model that can be shared and used across multiple districts. We are grateful that OPS is eager to lay the groundwork with this Think Tank and shares our passion for improving the lives of students with disabilities.”
Main, who is a part of the Transition Think Tank, has a vested interest in this program’s outcome. Her son, Skyler, was diagnosed with autism at age 4 and attends Cravens Elementary School. Skyler has been attending Puzzle Pieces since he was 8 and she has seen the impact it has made on his life.
“As a parent, I hope my son is able to reach his full potential,” Main said. “I want him to gain the skills to be a successful worker and contributing citizen. I want him to be able to advocate for his needs independently. I want him to live in a community where he is accepted for his abilities and challenged to grow just like everyone around him.”
According to Main, students with disabilities are missing important transition skills that provide them with the ability to gain and retain independence during school and after graduation.
“This collaboration work can help provide families with knowledge and resources to start the process earlier,” she said. “It can also be a tool kit for educators to teach skills to the students beginning in preschool and align those throughout graduation. This process will empower students to learn about their skills and strengths and be the best version of themselves for career or college.”
Although 2020 has brought its fair share of negatives, one big positive came out of this year. Our nonprofit was able to hire a Behavior Services Director to better serve our clients and address the growing need we see in our community.
Amanda Owen, executive director of Puzzle Pieces, the Owensboro-based nonprofit that serves individuals with intellectual disabilities, has been appointed by Gov. Andy Beshear to the Kentucky Employment First Council. This Council includes people with disabilities, family members, employers, government agencies, and other stakeholders, all with the shared intention of improving competitive integrated employment for people with disabilities in the Commonwealth.
While 2020 has not been the year anyone expected, it has brought a lot of joys and successes to Puzzle Pieces. November 15 marks one year in our new facility, which has given us the growth and momentum we dreamed of when we decided to make this big move last year.
When Amanda Owen launched Puzzle Pieces in 2012, she aimed to bring opportunities and inclusion for Owensboro’s disability population. Inspired by her brother, who has a rare chromosomal disability, Amanda knew what she wanted to offer through Puzzle Pieces -- the programming, socialization and stimulation that her brother did not have. According to Amanda, health and nutrition were and continue to be a top priority.
Going to the dentist can be a worrisome, even scary experience for a lot of young people, but for those with intellectual disabilities, a dental exam can be traumatic. But for Puzzle Pieces’ client, Trent, who has autism, going to the dentist is something he looks forward to because of local dentist Dr. Jay Crews at Pediatric Dentistry of Owensboro
Puzzle Pieces is excited to announce the future installation of a fully inclusive sensory outdoor museum/playground at its campus on New Hartford Road. This playground will be the first of its kind in the nation and a product line of Miracle Recreation Equipment Company.
In the two years since Puzzle Pieces launched Employment Opportunities, our team has placed 17 clients in successful employment with 12 more in job development ready to be placed. Two of those recent placements have been at the south Frederica fast food chain Zaxby’s.
In the eight years that Puzzle Pieces has been serving this community, this is by far the most difficult time we have faced. More challenging than launching our nonprofit in 2012 and relocating our campus in 2019, surviving the Covid-19 crisis has proven to be our biggest obstacle. And while we are confident that we will overcome this months-long hurdle, we believe it is important to share with you our struggles as we strive to continue our services for those with intellectual disabilities.
The bottom line: We are open, but we are not OK.
Despite the onset of a global health pandemic, there have been shining examples of people showing up for their neighbors, for their community or even for complete strangers. Locally, social media groups quickly formed, offering help to those in need. Restaurants gave away free meals to the hungry. Sewers, or just those willing to learn to sew, handcrafted masks to protect frontline healthcare workers. And while this positive spirit has been witnessed across the community, we have seen it in our Puzzle Pieces family just as much.