By Jerri Stroud, BBB Editor
When children with autism or other developmental disabilities grow up, they often find it hard to make friends, build a social life and participate in their communities. That’s where Pathways to Independence comes in.
Five families of children who were growing out of school started the nonprofit in 1987 with the idea of helping their young adults build social networks and find a place to live. The focus soon shifted to helping the individuals connect and be active members of society.
Today, Pathways serves 130 families in St. Louis and St. Louis and St. Charles counties. Clients range in age from their 20s to 50s, with about 40 percent between 19 and 30, said Craig Strohbeck, executive director.
Typically clients come to Pathways two or three years after leaving school, Strohbeck said. Some parents try to get them to come earlier, but most clients need time to realize that their adult network has not materialized and they need the support Pathways provides.
“Many of our clients didn’t know there were other people like them in the community,” Strohbeck said. “Often, they don’t feel they fit in with people served by other service providers in the community, yet they know they have needs.”
About 80 percent of Pathways’ clients have jobs, and about 90 percent of those have “competitive employment.” That is, most don’t work for a sheltered workshop but rather at grocers, hotel laundries and other private sector jobs.
Pathways offers clients three options for building their social networks, engaging in the community and understanding society’s expectations. These are: social college, social focus and social growth.
Social college is a series of classes and discussions. Clients attend four classes over a two-month period covering a single topic, such as managing emotions, social problem solving, workplace etiquette or nurturing friendships. The courses lay the foundation for social interaction skills that are practiced and reinforced in group settings in the community.
Social focus helps a participant plan his or her own small group. The participant chooses the location and invitation list, and a staff member helps with the process and manages any sense of rejection the client may feel. The program helps the client build confidence and learn to manage social activities.
Social growth is a calendar of 15 to 20 activities that Pathways creates every month. This can range from going out to eat, attending a sporting event or meeting at one participant’s house. The outings are designed to help clients meet other people like themselves, become more comfortable in their social network, practice social skills and receive coaching in social situations, Strohbeck said.
Pathways staff serve as “social coaches” to help clients understand how to act in social situations, including at work. Pathways services complements those of other agencies that provide help with housing, job placement or other services.
Most of Pathways’ nine employees have social work or recreational therapy backgrounds. The staff has an ethics policy, as does Pathways’ board. Staff members get annual training on a variety of topics, including online training through the College of Direct Support.
Many employees and clients have been with Pathways for years. A few clients have been with the agency since it opened in 1987.
“Ultimately, we hope that they will connect and be active members of the community,” Strohbeck said. “We give them the social tools and provide an enticing atmosphere through fun activities so they can practice the interaction and community involvement skills to be more independent and less dependent on their families and society’s social system.”
Profiles of BBB Accredited Businesses and BBB Accredited Charities are created as part of BBB’s TORCH Award process and are not intended as an endorsement. To register for this year’s TORCH Awards luncheon on Nov. 13, go to http://www.bbb.org/stlouis/events.