Hometown Hero: Carrie Sheahan-Pernsley

MERS Goodwill’s summer youth programs are essential to building the self-esteem and confidence of local youth. Thanks in part to the work of Carrie Sheahan-Pernsley, Program Supervisor for MERS Goodwill’s Summer Work Experience Program (SWEP), youth with a variety of developmental disabilities from 29 St. Louis County high schools are given the opportunity to experience having a paid summer job, just as many of their high school peers do.

Carrie joined MERS Goodwill in 2007 as a Disability Program Navigator, housed at the Missouri Career Center in St. Charles County, then as an Employment Specialist, primarily working with high school students on career exploration. In 2012, she became Coordinator for the agency’s long-term retention program and took on the role of Program Supervisor for SWEP, where St. Louis County high school students ages 16 to 20 with disabilities work in the community with the support of Job Coaches. The students are paid an hourly wage for their work over the 8-week program made possible by funding from the Productive Living Board of St. Louis County. The PLB is responsible for grants to various programs that support St. Louis County citizens with disabilities.

“Carrie’s ability to oversee the huge SWEP program year after year is truly remarkable,” said Beth Brown, Assistant Vice President, Program Services for MERS Goodwill. “Through her hiring and training of Job Coaches and processing of hundreds of applications, Goodwill is able to provide temporary work experience to nearly 200 high school students each summer.”

This summer, there are 65 employers participating in SWEP including more than 30 Schnucks stores, nursing homes, Goodwill retail stores, YMCAs and TJX brand locations. The employers are so supportive of the opportunities SWEP provides for youth with disabilities and, every year, these employers hire some students to stay on after the program comes to an end.

While students spend two months in the program, it takes Carrie 10 months to plan and implement the next year’s program in order to ensure the best experiences for the participants, employers and job coaches. Planning for SWEP begins almost immediately with the program wrap-up meeting in August where employers and job coaches gather with the program’s funder, the Productive Living Board of St. Louis County, to discuss ways on how to further improve the program.

“Carrie’s ability to be supportive of her staff by keeping them excited and motivated, and her willingness to drop everything to make sure things are going well at the job sites, makes her a role model for myself and our colleagues,” added Beth.

In the last year alone, Carrie spearheaded the implementation of two major changes to SWEP: providing students with a minimum wage instead of a training wage as initiated by the PLB; and incorporating a teacher input form, which has been instrumental in supporting the growing number of participants on the Autism Spectrum. By receiving specific feedback from Special Education Teachers on student work behaviors and daily routines, the employers and job coaches involved in SWEP can better understand triggers in behavioral changes and adjust to each student’s need.

“More than half of our participants this summer have an Autism diagnosis,” said Carrie. “In order to provide a valuable experience for these students, we sometimes need to bring in Behavioral Specialists to provide additional supports. We also have Autism support professionals to provide training for the staff. Frequently, we’ve worked with the participant, their family, and the Job Coach to make adjustments to work schedules or environments that will hopefully provide that participant with the best chance for success. Having a teacher input form makes these accommodations possible.”

Carrie spends several months in the fall reaching out to teachers regarding the program and putting the applications together, which are distributed the third week in November to all teachers, Work Experience Coordinators, Regional Case Managers and parents. The processing of hundreds of applications takes place in February where Carrie is responsible for separating applications by county and determining the applicants’ eligibility with the regional Department of Mental Health (DMH) office. A critical component to SWEP’s success is educating parents and Case Managers on the program’s eligibility requirements. Carrie recalls one instance when a mother of high school student who was never officially diagnosed with a disability approached her for help less than a month before SWEP started. The mother had no resources and nowhere to turn to for guidance until Carrie steered her in the right direction and suggested she meet with the regional DMH, where her son was eventually diagnosed with Autism.

“Remarkably, an opening came up at the very last minute and the student was able to join the 2014 summer program and went on to become an amazing addition to the employer he was paired with,” said Carrie. “I was elated to find out that same student is enrolled in SWEP this summer and was specifically requested by the employer he worked with last year.”

For St. Louis County residents that are interested in eligibility information about SWEP, please contact MERS Goodwill at 314-647-7453.