Empowering Futures: Goodwill Partners with Schools for Vocational Success!

What do Bloomington High School, Eugene Field Professional Training Center, Bridgeway, and Land of Lincoln Goodwill Industries have in common?

A similar MISSION!

Providing people with the skills and resources to become self-sufficient through the power of work.

The Illinois Department of Human Services has a transitional program called the Secondary Transitional Experience Program (STEP). STEP is a work experience program that helps students with disabilities prepare to transition to employment and community participation during and after high school. DHS encourages employer participation with schools to present opportunities for these students. The Vocational Rehabilitation Counselors work with students to individualize their STEP services to meet their specific needs. Work-based learning experiences occur both in school and in the community. They can include volunteer experiences, internships, and employer-paid positions intending to attain competitive integrated employment.

In the fall of 2023, Land of Lincoln Goodwill Industries reached out to these organizations with the dream of forming a strong partnership to assist in transitioning high school vocational students and graduates, up to 22 years old, needing a little extra help preparing for the real world after high school. Through Goodwill’s Volunteer Program, we encourage vocational programs to send us students ready to sharpen their skills and practice working in the “real world”. So, when students leave our employability skill training program, they have the necessary skills and increased confidence to interview and work in the “real world”. In some cases, they come and work for Goodwill.

The Eugene Field School’s vocational program is called the Vocational Transition Assistance Program or VTAP. These services support the McLean County Unit District #5 students. This school receives assistance from the DHS in addition to school district funding. VTAP provides students the opportunity to learn through work. Students also participate in classes where they learn appropriate work etiquette and ethical practices.

This new Land of Lincoln Goodwill/Bloomington transition program has been enriched through the efforts of local Career Coach and Goodwill employee, Ursula Tone-Loercher from Bloomington. She understood the Goodwill Mission and realized that high school vocational students were living our Mission as well and striving to be independent through the power of work. She recognized a natural partnership and wanted to bring it to life!

Goodwill is excited to announce that two students, Joe & Hannah, who have been working hard the last few months through STEP & VTAP, have recently been hired as part-time employees in our Goodwill Bloomington store at a starting competitive salary. “I love Goodwill and love to shop at Goodwill. You can find everything there! I can’t wait to work and make money!”, states Joe. Joe, or “Happy Joe” as he’s called, loves fashion and spends a lot of time communicating with his 10,000+ followers on TikTok. He loves to model all of the clothes he finds at Goodwill. Hannah is a very hard worker. She has spent many hours at the Eugene School practicing in the demonstrational area her Vocational Coordinator designed for her so she could practice hanging clothes with Goodwill-type hangers, size separator rings, and match and display shoes just like at Goodwill. “I love putting clothes out on the floor,” states Hannah. When asked what advice she would give others thinking about joining the Goodwill Volunteer Program, she explains, “This job is so fun. Just give your time and energy and you will see your self-confidence grow!”.

Dawn Sheppelman, Vocational Coordinator at Eugene Field shares the gratitude she has for Goodwill. “It allows the students to work in ‘real-life’ situations. We have some students that it would be difficult to work outside of school but at Goodwill, the students and I both feel they are safe and in good hands. The students need to feel they can make mistakes while learning and not be scolded. Goodwill moves at a pace that our students can handle. One of her students, Madison, loves to hang up clothes. “We jokingly call her the Hanger Queen, now of course, she wants a “Hanger Queen” t-shirt. We have seen Madison’s confidence soar and watched her intrapersonal skills blossom through this program. These skills will not only help Madison in a working environment but will assist her out in the community. More time spent in this program will increase her chance of attending camps this summer with her friends.

Stephanie Welch, an Employment Specialist from Bridgeway, Inc., a central Illinois company that envisions a world where people live to their fullest potential. “Creating Solutions for Everyone” is their mission. Stephanie has been a special needs teacher and has an autistic child so she is very sensitive to the needs of her students and at times a bit overprotective. “Yes, I am very protective of my students. As a parent, I empathize with their parents and want people to be kind and patient with my students. I want to make sure I set them up in environments so they will be successful. So far, most of my employer matches have worked out very well. Some of my students have little to no outside job experience. Goodwill gives them that experience and allows me to evaluate their skill sets and capabilities”, states Stephanie. “One of our biggest challenges is finding the right employers and working with the perceptions that come along with our program and students.”

Goodwill’s Career Coach, Ursula, has noticed that with the addition of our volunteer vocational students, she has noticed a change in our local Goodwill employees for the better. We have seen employees “soften” a bit, watch their choice of words, be kinder and more patient, and take on more leadership roles to guide these students. This cultural change has been positive for everyone!

One of Stephanie’s students is wheelchair-bound most of the day or sitting comfortably in a nearby chair. Her name is Petra and she uses a speech-generating device to carry on a conversation. She mentioned that she gets frustrated because, “When people look at me, they think I am stupid,” shares Petra. On the contrary, Petra has an incredible drive! She has an undergraduate degree in graphic design and travels by herself all over the world. She is an unbelievably strong and courageous woman. A person with a lot of skills to offer an employer.
Dawn Duff, Vocational Coordinator at Bloomington High School in District 87, has had great experiences with this transitional program. She also recognized that some students are very difficult to place into a real-life situation and she is grateful for Goodwill. The flexibility that Goodwill offers our students has allowed us to offer this program to a larger number of students. Dawn has two groups of students and job coaches who come to Goodwill twice a week. She has seen a huge spike in confidence in her students, especially those who have social anxiety. All students with IEPs are eligible to participate in the high school vocational transition program. Students with IEPs, account for 20% of the entire student body and that number continues to grow. Dawn would love to see more employers step up to the plate and invite their participation. Several students work for local companies and assist with their dining operations, housekeeping and cleaning, food preparation, and merchandise stocking. She is dedicated to educating the community and employers about the upside of working with her students. “We are thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Goodwill and other employers in the area. We have so many students, we would love to see this number grow!” states Dawn.

Tammy Heffernan, a Job Coach from School District #87, shared her thoughts on working with three young men in this program; Caleb, DJ, and Malachi. Each one of these students has grown and learned to adapt to the Goodwill real-life environment. “One of my students is extremely talkative and at times can be disruptive. So, with him, we play the ‘Quiet game’ and it works beautifully. They have all shown improvement since the first day. DJ is a perfectionist so he needs little supervision and Caleb has shown how detail-oriented he has become and is perfect in buttoning shirts and watching for stains. They all bring some magic to the office. I am so proud of their growth in just a few short months.” states Tammy. She sees their time at Goodwill as an opportunity to grow and later move into a permanent position with Goodwill or another company. When you ask them what they are doing, the students reply with their shoulders back and a big grin on their face, “I work at Goodwill!”. They are so proud and so are we!

The success stories of students like Joe, Hannah, Madison, Caleb, DJ, Malachi, and Petra demonstrate the positive impact of these programs. Through their dedication and hard work, they have been able to secure employment and thrive in their roles at Goodwill and other companies. Additionally, the collaborative efforts of educators, vocational coordinators, job coaches, and employers have contributed to the growth and success of these programs.

Looking ahead, there are plans to expand these initiatives to more communities and schools, with the goal of providing support and opportunities to even more vocational students across the region. These efforts are driven by a commitment to creating inclusive and supportive environments where all individuals have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Ursula Tone-Loercher has already been planning for the fall 2024 school year. Her goal is to have all 14 Land of Lincoln Goodwill Stores matched with a local vocational transitioning program in their community. Besides the schools mentioned above, Ursula has matched Chatham (Auburn High School under Sangamon Area Special Education), Jacksonville (Illinois School for the Deaf), Quincy (Quincy High Schools), and Clinton (Clinton High School). The Goodwill team is well on their way to having all stores matched by this fall.

A big thanks to the following superheroes who shared their students and their time in collaborating with me on this article.
Dawn Sheppelman, Vocational Coordinator at Eugene Field
Stephanie Welch, Employment Specialists at Bridgeway Inc.
Dawn Duff, Vocational Coordinator at Bloomington High School
Tammy Heffernan, Job Coach at Bloomington High School
And their students!
Hannah, Madison, Petra, Joe, Caleb, DJ and Malachi!

If you are interested in learning more about our transitional programs, reach out to Ursula Tone-Loercher at ursula.loercher@llgi.org or contact our Administrative Office at 217-789-0400.

For media inquiries, please contact:
Shelley F. Singleton
VP Marketing, Communications & Fund Development
Office: 217.789.0400
Cellular: 214.558.1440