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Kids with special needs take the first step to adulthood through the Disability & Mental Health Summit

Sandra Tolliver
February19/ 2020

Toward the end of his freshman year in college, Pancho Timmons recalls feeling certain that he had flunked out and would return home in shame. But a professor sat him down and talked him into getting the help he needed to finish his schooling.

“That five-minute conversation made a huge difference in my life, changed the entire course of my life,” says Timmons, founder and CEO of Pennsylvania Youth Initiative. “So if I can have that sort of conversation with as many youths as possible, perhaps they will have a better time than I did and be better prepared.”

On March 3, Timmons’ organization will take part in the annual Disability & Mental Health Summit at David L. Lawrence Convention Center, hosted by Rep. Dan Miller (D-Mt. Lebanon). The keynote speakers are Secretary Teresa Miller of the Department of Human Services and Kristin Ahrens, deputy secretary for the Office of Developmental Program.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, so thousands of people are expected to attend, including teachers and caregivers. Hundreds of presenters and speakers will take part in events.

Interest was so high for the Pennsylvania Youth Initiative session — more than 500 youths — that Timmons had to close registration for its program, though the summit itself is still open to the public.

The program offered by Pennsylvania Youth Initiative teaches young people self-advocacy skills by giving them a chance to meet in small groups with elected officials and to network with employers and higher ed institutions. School district officials who arranged for kids to attend call it an invaluable experience.

“We teach them how to articulate a message of advocacy, how to ask for accommodations and why that’s important,” says Timmons. “And they get small-group time with Pennsylvania lawmakers to talk about issues that are important to young people, things like LGBTQ, bullying, school safety.”

The students pick up on the message quickly, he says. A group talking with a state senator about cyberbullying one year quickly let the senator know that kids don’t want empty promises.

“They were having this conversation about how a cyberbully will jump in and it ruins everything,” Timmons says. “One of the kids asked the senator, an older gentleman, ‘Are you on Twitter?’ and the senator was like, ‘Well, no …’ and the kid said, ‘Well, how are you going to help with this problem if you’re not on Twitter?’ So it does bring some things to light. These are soon-to-be voters, and it restores my faith in the system a little bit.”

Though lawmakers are involved, the disability summit is not a political event. Sessions include a special program on building a youth mental health advocacy network, guardianship and other forms of substitute decision-making. Though Timmons works with high school students, there are also sessions aimed at caregivers for infants, toddlers and preschoolers.

Timmons’ organization gets its funding from corporations, including UPMC, FedEx, 3LG Solutions and Sumo Logic. He’s still trying to raise $3,500 to cover some expenses for the summit.

“These are all kids with physical or mental disabilities. Every student has an individual education plan,” Timmons says. “We have 30-some school districts attending at this point. This is the biggest it’s been because of the 30th anniversary of ADA this year. The school staff are excited.”

Many students want to attend the summit because “this is about taking a step forward into adulthood,” says Timmons. “They want to grow up and make decisions about their future and their career. We target kids who have potential for competitive employment, regardless of what that is.”

Pennsylvania Youth Initiative does workforce development training and Timmons writes programs on soft skills and employable skills. This year, he’s hoping to connect youths with businesses for work experience, functioning as a sort of temp agency.

“That’s the plan,” he says. “We’re always looking for businesses, funders. We keep connections with businesses and keep them involved in our programming. They get, ideally, some solid PR but they also get to generate some interest with maybe some future employees in their company.”

On-site registration for the March 3 summit is available for programs that aren’t full. A resource fair will run from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. in Ballroom A and the Gallery. There is no cost to attend the summit, though attendees pay for food and beverages.

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.

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