PISCATAWAY – This graduation season, students with disabilities are aging out of specialized schools they’ve attended their whole lives, leaving their parents with one question: what’s next?
Allison Sanchez, the new Executive Director of the Educational Service Commission of New Jersey’s (ESCNJ) “Adult Community Services,” has the solution: expand vocational and social skills of people with disabilities to prepare them for potential competitive job opportunities.
“All of my life, I’ve had a genuine passion for helping others and thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to make a difference in other people’s lives,” Sanchez said. With her new position at the ESCNJ, beginning earlier this month, Sanchez is taking her passion to the next step.
ESCNJ operates six specialized schools, serving students ages 3-21 with autism, multiple disabilities, and at-risk behaviors. This fall Ms. Sanchez will work with students who have graduated from their specialized school programs to develop a life-skills learning program preparing students for independence and potential jobs, which is a long-time objective of the ESCNJ.
“I am focused on developing a strong program to enable individuals to further explore their interests and be given opportunities to increase their skills in a true job setting,” Sanchez said. The program is set to have its grand opening in September when participants will receive individualized mentoring, teaching them vital skills such as how to dress for an interview, do laundry and budget time and money.
Sanchez, a Fanwood resident, began working with individuals with developmental or mental diagnoses shortly after college graduation.
“I took an individual with a mental health diagnosis grocery shopping and while I was at the register he stood to the side talking to himself,” Sanchez recalled. “A fellow shopper asked if the `crazy person’ was with me. I was floored by her audacity because that is not how you address or define people. I knew at that moment that I wanted to be an advocate for this population.”
From 2005 to 2019, Sanchez worked at JESPY House where one of her many accomplishments included building relationships with local employers and then matching them with individuals with disabilities eager to work. Now, at ESCNJ, she is excited with the opportunity to build a more extensive program from the ground up.
“Right now, we are still hiring and developing the program,” Sanchez said. “Once the program begins, I will be in charge of further development, enhancing the role of technology, following best practices, and most importantly, maintaining solid communication between myself, staff, and families.”
Sanchez, a firm believer in the open-door policy, notes that parents of potential participants have many questions. “When I speak to parents, they are so excited because they love ESCNJ and they like the progress that they see in their children,” Sanchez said. “I want parents to know that they are heard and will continue to be heard because their input is important to me.”
In July, criteria for admission will be released and Sanchez has no doubts that the list of interested families will continue to grow. “In all my years of service, nothing has given me greater pleasure than doing something for the benefit of others,” Sanchez said. “I am just so thrilled. The program is going to be a success…it’s going to be phenomenal.”