Aldo Suarez, 21, of Little Village enjoys playing the Halo video game. Another favourite? Build McLaren vehicles with Lego Technic sets. And he prefers old “Matrix” movies, Courage the Cowardly Dog, and strolling through the North Riverside and Woodfield malls when he can. And his favorite dish is tofu.
“My cholesterol is very high so I need to lower it. They also say my blood pressure is too high because of the salt. I want to lower all that,” he said. “That’s why I’m going for tofu.”
The other thing the Ray Graham Training Center student is looking for is a job at Michael’s, the arts and crafts store. Suarez is engaged with his first job at Jewel-Osco, corralling carts. It’s a job that Urban Autism Solutions (UAS) West Side Transition Academy helped him get. Academy staff help high school students with autism and related challenges find gainful employment and prepare for employment – from filling out job applications, writing resumes, and learning skills. interview techniques and any additional assistance once employed to ensure that their transition to the new entry level position is a smooth one.
“Mike Tracy helped me with interviews and communications,” Suarez said.
Tracy has been helping the UAS population secure entry-level positions since 2019. He and his wife Julie founded the Urban Autism Solutions program in 2012 after their son John was diagnosed with autism as a toddler.
The organization was supposed to take care of social programs, employment and residential concerns. The Chicago nonprofit has grown into a multi-level program with a residential component, a 1.2-acre farm in the Chicago Medical District (Growing Solutions Farm), the academy (a program that caters West Side public high school students with IEP (ages 16-22) with speech and occupational therapy, social and emotional behavior learning with licensed social workers and clinicians) and the Life Lab, a home West Side town where students with more severe functional challenges practice daily living skills such as laundry, cooking, and personal care.
“We are currently working with five high schools and about 90 students,” Mike Tracy said. “We have a nice space here in Little Italy, but we would like to expand to serve more schools, more students. We would like to hire more staff eventually – there is huge demand there. So we would like to help supply it as best we can.
Tracy said jobs are the biggest priority right now, which coincides with October Disability Employment Awareness Month. Data shows that unemployment and underemployment are higher among people with disabilities.
“The employment component has become a much stronger part of what we’ve been doing over the past three years,” said Heather Tarczan, CEO of UAS. “Not all students may be ready to work. So if a class of 15 students joins us, there are maybe two or three students who are ready by January for a job. But maybe the next year, when they’re another year older, there’ll be maybe five or six ready candidates.
Tracy is the intermediary for employers and future employees. He said that as long as the market is strong, he will try to continue to place people in the jobs of their choice. Tracy helped Alejandro Sanchez from Little Village find his job at dd’s Discounts. Having hit the six-month mark in the role, the 21-year-old says his love of fashion got him there. Prior to dd’s, he worked at the Chicago Lighthouse during the summer on photography projects, interned with city government, and interned with UAS communications director Sharon Parmet. He is saving his money to buy a house for his grandmother.
“I worked with Walmart first, but I didn’t like pushing carts,” Sanchez said of his three-month stint. “And that was in December.” He said pushing carts in cold weather gave him anxiety.
When he’s not working, Sanchez plays and watches football, and takes pictures at Millennium Park. He wants to pursue a career in photography and has set his sights on internship opportunities that will help him along this path.
The four-day-a-week academy does all it can to help young adults, with five full-time staff operating on the second floor of a former parochial school. Young adults with special needs leave high school when they reach the age of 22 and subsequently lose the school programs and resources to which they have become accustomed. UAS offers programs and services to help young adults make the transition to adulthood. Teachers ride their students on the designated day of the week at the academy on the CTA and through a partnership with Lyft, Urban Autism Solutions helps employed students with free rides to and from work.
“We provide what I would consider complementary services to what is taught in a traditional classroom,” Tarczan said. “We are the community partner that provides more intense community living programs, internships, work experiences and clinical experiences than maybe what they get in school.
“We are not teachers, we are not educators, but what we have are clinicians where we bring together best practices and people who have skills in speech therapy, behavior therapy, social work, who are able to provide our students with intensive social/emotional learning. Skills like speech and language and behavioral therapy skills – really providing those additional skill sets to complete that picture.
Safety and proximity to jobs are paramount when it comes to creating a win-win situation for both employer and student, Tarczan added. She said young adults with UAS are like anyone else, they just want to have a foot in the door when it comes to employment and be able to prove not just to themselves, but to everyone. world that they can do what their siblings do, what their parents do, or what their friends do.
“They want to take home a paycheck and they want to contribute to their family,” she said. “And they want to be able to eat out with their friends and buy some cool shoes.”
Before leaving, Sanchez smiled as he shared his favorite quote: “I’ll go wherever the wind takes me”; he then inquired about internship opportunities at the Chicago Tribune.