Youth with Disabilities Excel at Summer Enrichment Academy

Published 1:06 pm Saturday, August 21, 2021

When you think of summertime, you probably think of taking vacations, soaking up the sun, spending time with family and friends and having time away from school. In Mississippi, 22 youth and young adult students with disabilities chose to make their summer a work learning experience instead.

These students attended the ToTAL (Transition of Teens to Adult Life) 2021 Summer Enrichment Academy. The ToTAL Program is provided through the Institute for Disability (IDS) at The University of Southern Mississippi, Mississippi’s University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, and is funded by the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services.

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The 2021 academy was the fourth offering of this annual event and the second time the event was held in a completely virtual format. The theme of this year’s academy was “It’s Time to Find the Superhero in You.”

The academy consisted of a general two-week training session followed by individualized six-week work-based learning experiences. The two weeks of virtual training were provided through the Zoom platform and included three hours of live Zoom training with two hours focused specifically on skill development facilitated by Job Skills Trainers.

When asked about her experience in the 2021 Summer Enrichment Academy, Madisyn explained, “I got to meet new people and learn more about the superhero in me. What I learned that will help me in the in future to be prepared for employment is how important references are when doing a job application. I was able to learn more about the field that I want to be in, which is social work.”

A new aspect of the 2021 academy was including a participant from the 2020 academy, Caden, serve as a peer mentor to participants. Caden, assisted the job skills trainers with the training and interactive activities.

When asked about his role as peer mentor, he shared “Returning was a unique experience. I enjoyed putting the knowledge I gained in the 2020 program into practical advice. Getting to explore the program once again really gave me the freedom to figure out what would interest me in my career field.”

For the past two years, the work-based learning experience has expanded to create an entirely unique and virtual alternative to adhere to restrictions and social distancing requirements associated with COVID-19. Students established a weekly “work” schedule and completed activities focused on job readiness skills and career interests such as virtual informational interviews with local and state employees/employers.

These interviews afforded students opportunities to interact with professionals in their chosen industry and ask questions regarding their desired career path. All students who completed the work-based learning experiences received a stipend equaling minimum wage for a total of 90 hours.

The career informational interviewees were instrumental in providing real-world employment information. As noted by Van Arnold, Assistant Director of News & Media Relations at USM, “Meeting someone for the first time and being interviewed through Zoom created a lot of uncertainty. But, right from the outset, I was immediately impressed with the participant’s preparedness. He asked specific, thoughtful questions about my role in the Office of Communications and as a writer in general. The time honestly flew by. I would have enjoyed conversing with the participant much longer than the half-hour or so we chatted.”

For over 40 years, IDS has maintained its mission to “positively affect the lives of Mississippi citizens with developmental and other disabilities and their families across the lifespan and to work toward increasing their independence, productivity, and community inclusion.” IDS concentrates its work in four emphasis areas: Early Childhood Inclusion and Education, Housing, Transition to Adulthood and Wellness.

To learn more about IDS or the ToTAL program, visit, call 601.266.5163 or email