Teens With Disabilities Thrive During PROMISE Paid Work Experiences

Demarcus Wiggins, PROMISE case manager for Benton County, congratulates Cyndi Saucier on a job well done. Cyndi worked at Outdoor Images Lawn & Garden Center in Siloam Springs and is a sophomore at Siloam Springs High School.
Photo by Heidi Stambuck

Demarcus Wiggins, PROMISE case manager for Benton County, congratulates Cyndi Saucier on a job well done. Cyndi worked at Outdoor Images Lawn & Garden Center in Siloam Springs and is a sophomore at Siloam Springs High School.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – This summer, the Arkansas PROMISE project paid for the work experiences of nearly 300 teenagers with disabilities, with a goal of matching the teens’ interests to their jobs. In the case of Cromwell Architecture and Engineering in Little Rock, the match worked so well the company wants its teen employee to come back to work next summer.

PROMISE is an acronym for “Promoting Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income.”

PROMISE officials Brent Thomas Williams and Philip Adams reported several other cases where employers asked PROMISE participants to continue working during the school year.

Williams, a University of Arkansas associate professor of rehabilitation education and research, has the job of principal investigator overseeing the $32.4 million research grant project, and Adams directs the day-to-day operations.

In September 2013, the U.S. Department of Education awarded the five-year grant to the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas and the Arkansas Department of Education to fund the Arkansas PROMISE project. Its goal is to improve the career and education outcomes of low-income teenagers with disabilities.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson offered his thanks to businesses that participated this year and is encouraging more businesses to consider employing a PROMISE participant next summer.

“It’s a win-win,” Hutchinson said in a video message. “Employers get a hard worker and kids get a chance. Local businesses are the foundations of Arkansas’ communities. I ask them to join me in supporting Arkansas teens with disabilities.”

Dorian Shavis spent three days a week at Cromwell’s offices in Little Rock, learning about different aspects of the architecture industry, and his supervisors also mentored him on proper office etiquette. Cromwell gave him the opportunity to work with Habitat for Humanity and design a home that will be refurbished near his school. 

“It was great for him,” said Tina Shavis, mother of Dorian, 15, who has autism. “He is always talking about restoring impoverished neighborhoods so this gave him the opportunity to go to work at an architectural firm and learn what they do.”

The experience also helped her son be comfortable working around adults.

“He was able to see what it’s like to work,” she said. “Before, he was used to being around teenagers. He learned to improve his social skills. They said he was a joy to work with.”

The PROMISE project relies on multiple partner agencies to operate. The Arkansas Department of Workforce Services partnered with nine local Workforce Development Boards to match 183 local employers in 25 counties with 291 youth, who completed a total of 17,827 hours of work.

PROMISE has recruited 1,338 teens to date to participate in the project. Its goal is to enroll 2,000 teens by next April. The teens are enrolled and then divided into two groups with half of them receiving the additional training and paid work experiences, and the other half receiving only the usual services provided to teens with disabilities. Each teen in the group receiving the additional training will do two 200-hour work experiences during the five-year program.

Adams said Arkansas PROMISE leads in recruiting and enrolling teens among the six sites that received funding from the U.S. Department of Education for the initiative.

Mathematica Policy Research of Princeton, New Jersey, randomly assigns teens to one of the two groups and is analyzing data collected throughout the grant period to help the federal government determine whether the PROMISE project should be used as a model for future programs. It is hoped the program will result in fewer teens with disabilities remaining on SSI throughout their lives. The $32.4 million grant would pay for itself if only 50 of the PROMISE participants are employed as adults and no longer receive SSI, Adams said.

Planning for next summer’s work experiences begins this fall, compared to the much shorter time period available after recruitment began in the spring this year.

“Kudos to the agencies that did so much in so little time to get the summer work experiences arranged,” Williams said. “The workforce development boards did extraordinary work, along with all of the PROMISE staff.”

Staff reported success stories involving other teen participants:

  • After she graduates from high school, Jessy plans to enroll at Designer Barber College in Fort Smith where she worked this summer. After a rocky start at the receptionist desk where she struggled because of her shyness, Jessy, who has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, blossomed working in the client area under the guidance of two of the barber college students.
  • Rachel will continue to work this fall at Peace Kids Learning Center in Rogers. She built a good relationship with her employers at the child-care facility, keeping them informed when her degenerative hip dysplasia made it necessary for her to miss work occasionally.
  • Perry walked to his summer job at Nelson’s Hardware in Cave Springs, where he cleaned, stocked and organized shelves and helped customers load their purchases. The store hired Perry, who has severe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, to work Saturdays through the school year.

About Arkansas PROMISE: The PROMISE project is a joint initiative of four federal agencies: the departments of education, health and human services, labor and the Social Security Administration. Its underlying premise is that improved coordination between services can improve outcomes for youth and their families. Its goals also include decreasing reliance on SSI and reducing the cost to the federal government. The grant was submitted through a partnership between the university, the Arkansas Department of Education and other state agencies. Other partners are the Arkansas Department of Health, Arkansas Rehabilitation Services, Arkansas Department of Workforce Services, Arkansas Workforce Centers, Arkansas Department of Human Services, Arkansas Department of Higher Education, Sources for Community Independent Living Services, the Clinton Foundation, Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance, U of A CURRENTS, Partners for Inclusive Communities and Arkansas Research Center.

About the University of Arkansas: The University of Arkansas provides an internationally competitive education for undergraduate and graduate students in more than 200 academic programs. The university contributes new knowledge, economic development, basic and applied research, and creative activity while also providing service to academic and professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the University of Arkansas among only 2 percent of universities in America that have the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the University of Arkansas among its top American public research universities. Founded in 1871, the University of Arkansas comprises 10 colleges and schools and maintains a low student-to-faculty ratio that promotes personal attention and close mentoring.


Brent Thomas Williams, associate professor of rehabilitation education and research
College of Education and Health Professions
479-575-8696, btwilli@uark.edu

Philip Adams, director
Arkansas PROMISE Project
479-575-5214, stephena@uark.edu

Heidi Wells, director of communications
College of Education and Health Professions
479-575-3138, heidisw@uark.edu


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