For 21-year-old Hunter Olin, traditional public school was challenging. As a child, she was diagnosed with a developmental disability, making routine school activities like classroom learning and social situations difficult.
Throughout her years at public school in Kelso, Washington, Olin attended school on an individualized education plan (IEP), developed by a team of special education providers in her school district. She graduated from Kelso High School in 2016 but needed additional supports to prepare her for life after high school.
With a little hesitation, Olin entered ESD 112’s Student Transition Educational Program Services (STEPS), located in Longview. STEPS is a transitional program designed for youth ages 18-21 and offers young adults with disabilities the opportunity to participate in career exploration and receive specialized instruction, training and support.
Students like Olin learn things like daily living skills, communication, self-advocacy and social skills. It’s a three-year program for high school graduates and serves neurodiverse students from Castle Rock, Kalama, Kelso, Longview, Toutle, and Wahkiakum School Districts.
“STEPS guides students to identify as a strong individual, not a label,” said Assistant Special Education Director for ESD 112 and STEPS Director, Jeanette Forman. “Their disability does not define who they are.”
Today, following her graduation from the STEPS program, Olin has come a long way from the timid girl who entered the program. Jeanette Forman agrees and believes self-assurance is one of the many benefits the program provides participants.
Following her completion of the program, Olin says she’s gained self-confidence and has learned how to advocate for herself in challenging situations. She has participated in career development and training activities, and has learned to cope in stressful situations. Without hesitation, Olin credits her success to the support she received while attending STEPS.
“We see an intrinsic desire in our students to lead productive, independent lives as contributing members of their communities,” said Forman. “This desire is so profound, our students actually made it our mission statement.”
Olin is one of 57 students who have graduated from the STEPS program since it began in 2011. The first STEPS cohort was comprised of five students. In 2019, 38 students are enrolled in the program, and it’s only expected to keep growing.
Current projects in the works to expand the reach of the STEPS program include renovating the STEPS building in Longview and developing additional partnerships with businesses in the Kelso/Longview community to offer more work skills development opportunities for students.
Although there are a number of transition programs in Washington State, STEPS offers learners unique opportunities to expand their skillsets and life experiences. Program participants have the opportunity to explore a variety of career opportunities and goal is that students graduate from the program feeling confident and prepared for life as an independent adult, enriching their overall life satisfaction.
“Our students never fail to far exceed our expectations for them,” said Forman. “They teach us every day to listen, learn, and accept others as their own unique person. It’s so empowering to watch, and I consider it a great privilege to be part of such an amazing program.”