The Spectrum360 tote bags recently gifted to all staff to celebrate the launch of its redesigned website weren’t just any old tote bags. The cotton twill totes featuring S360’s multi-colored logo were made by adults in the “Let’s Get to Work!” pre-vocational program at Independence360.

Fifteen adults worked for a month using the program’s newly installed heat press to design the bags for all staff at Academy360, Independence 360, Film Academy360, the West Orange business office and the Spectrum360 Board of Directors. Inside each bag was a signed gift tag from the adult who created it.

Fulfilling the order for 500 bags was practical work experience for participants in Independence360’s pre-vocational program, which expanded last year in response to the return from pandemic life. I360 acquired new equipment and new ideas for training adults age 21 and up in the necessary skills to get and hold a job.

Mastering the newly installed vinyl cutting machines, heat press, 3D printers, button makers and other machines, adults are learning not only how to operate equipment, but getting real world training in soft skills for employment, such as following steps for safety, maintaining a schedule, meeting a deadline and so much more. “How to follow a schedule, listen to instructions, be a part of a team, dexterity and fine motor skills and time management!” lists Megan Weiss, I360’s Manager of Career Development. “We incorporate these soft skills into everything they’re doing here. Real life scenarios that build transferable experience for work outside of the program.”

Learning accountability for their work is another skill the adults work on. With each project, Megan emphasizes the importance of completing tasks accurately and on time as a big part of employment. This made the 500-bag order from the Spectrum360 communications team a great project for the pre-voc participants, with its fixed website launch-day deadline of April 29. The adults were excited to be doing something new and to give back to the program that’s given them so much.

“They loved personalizing the bags – putting their name on it and sharing their accomplishment with the greater organization that they are a part of.” Megan enthuses. “Filling the order meant a lot to them and they were proud of their accomplishments. This is what it means to work hard and complete a large project, working individually, but also together.”

The pre-vocation program allows adults to be entrepreneurs! Designing products, taking and fulfilling orders, plays an important part in the program’s work experience. In addition to the S360 totes, pre-vocational participants have been making mugs, plaques, buttons and more for S360 staff, family and community members and even an outside company that needed branded aprons for its employees. They hope to make this into a thriving business opportunity for the adults they serve.

Lessons learned in the pre-vocational program are also making a difference in lives outside of I360. “One client with outside employment comes in every day excited to share how she did something at work that she learned at I360. This is huge – the skills they’re learning here are transferable.”

Megan came to Independence360 as a job coach in the fall of 2019. She found her passion for supporting clients in securing and maintaining employment. “ Every adult deserves the opportunity to have meaningful employment and participate in purposeful activities.” Following the long months of virtual programming, Megan took that passion to the next level and became the Manager of Career Development for I360.

“I had always been interested in working with adults with special abilities, and Independence360 drew me in with their different programs and opportunities for adults on the spectrum,” says Megan Weiss. “Though challenging, the continued growth of the curriculum is necessary to keep the activities fresh and interesting for clients who may need extra time to acquire skills. We’ve exceeded milestones and had a lot of successes. I’m really happy with where it is going.”

Megan adds, “It’s a great program that will change employment outcomes for many adults. The sky’s the limit with what we can do!”

For more information about Independence360’s pre-vocational program, visit spectrum360.org/independence360 or contact Megan Weiss with any questions.