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Advisers help special-needs students transition to workforce

WOODSTOCK – The goal is clear: help special education students transition from school to the real world by finding them steady jobs.

But for the Careers and Education Department of the Special Education District of McHenry County, reaching that goal is a daily challenge.

“There are some employers who are very open to hire individuals with disabilities,” Director Dan Haligas said. “Some, we have to do some employer education and let them know how our students can really contribute to their organization and be just as valuable as other people in the workplace, sometimes more so.”

Haligas became director in August, moving from the Pioneer Center during a period of staff transition.

He heads a department that usually begins working with students around age 17, preparing them for employment, helping them secure a job, and then sticking with the person to make sure he or she maintains the position. The department also links special needs individuals with other social service agencies in the area.

“This is more than just a career for us. It’s a passion for us,” Haligas said. “We celebrate every time a young person with disabilities successfully transitions into their adult time.”

The period after school can be scary for the parents of special needs students.

“We help with the daunting task of transitioning out of public schools,” and make it go as smoothly as possible, Haligas said.

The recession and slow-to-recover economy further challenged the Career and Education Department, which has been around for about 10 years. But when the staff gets an individual in the door with a local employer, usually the person will do the rest.

Many special-needs students end up being loyal, reliable employees, Haligas said. “With job support, they can adapt to the workplace and bring a real positive attitude to the workplace.”

For Haligas and his staff, helping students successfully find and maintain those sorts of jobs keeps them excited about the work they do. The staff are driven by helping, “so that they can continue living fulfilled lives, and contribute to their community,” Haligas said.

“The education and career staff are very seasoned and dedicated,” he said. “I’m very proud to be a part of the team.”

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