Transition conference prepares youth with disabilities for adulthood

Ayla Etheridge, who was born with a spinal lipoma and uses a wheelchair, is a careful planner who is extremely tech-savvy and loves gaming, character design and writing.

As she attended the Illinois Statewide Transition Conference recently, Etheridge, 16, thought more about how these interests and skills will shape her future and career goals.

“I’m very independent and would like to do more things myself,” Etheridge said. “This conference has kind of helped me visualize and think about my next steps.”

The 17th annual transition conference, titled “Stepping Stones of Transition,” took place in East Peoria Nov. 3-4. The conference helps families and professionals learn about the resources, information and opportunities available for youth with disabilities as they prepare for adulthood.

Etheridge and her mom, Rachel, were among nearly 450 people who attended in person.

The University of Illinois Chicago’s Division of Specialized Care for Children sponsors the conference and serves on its steering committee.

DSCC also covered the related costs for 34 participant family members to attend, including the Etheridges and the Barraza family.

“I am so thankful to DSCC for the fact they covered the cost to be here. That made a big difference in us being able to attend,” Anita Barraza said.

“Education empowers me”

Anita’s son, Daniel Barraza, 17, is a DSCC participant. His older sister, Diana Barraza, 22, left DSCC last summer.

Anita Barraza is an occupational therapist who works with schoolchildren, so she understands both sides of the need for information and resources when supporting young adults with disabilities.

“As a parent, we can feel so overwhelmed. Even if help is right there, that reach can be hard to do,” Anita Barraza said.

That’s why opportunities to learn about a variety of resources and network with other families and professionals are so important.

“These types of resources educate me on how to best provide for my children’s needs and for their future,” Anita Barraza said.

“Education empowers me to be better prepared to help (Diana and Daniel) have a good quality of life.”

“One step ahead”

Anita Barraza had told two other DSCC moms about the conference and encouraged them to attend. One is her friend, Yessy Castillo.

Though Castillo’s son, Jacob Ortiz, is only 4 years old, she knew it was important to go.

“I want to be aware of what services are available for Jacob,” Castillo said. “Most importantly, I want to be one step ahead. This conference allows me to get the information on what can benefit Jacob.”

Jacob was born with a cleft palate, an underdeveloped jaw and other body malformations, and depends on a ventilator 24-7 to breathe.

“I appreciate getting the opportunity to meet people and attorneys for advice and support and more legal information on Jacob’s rights,” she said. “If I was not exposed to these events, I wouldn’t know what is available.”

Conference attendee Melania Tinoco said connecting with other families helped her feel more confident.

“It helps seeing we’re all in the same boat and finding out we aren’t alone,” Tinoco said.

Her daughter, Jeny, is 14 and has been a DSCC participant since birth. Jeny has Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome, a rare genetic and neurological condition that causes developmental delays.

Tinoco said the conference has helped her plan for the future, and she appreciated the breakout sessions on helping youth with disabilities respect their body and feel empowered to say “no.”

“The information has been helpful and inspirational,” Tinoco said.

Putting information into action

The conference consisted of informative breakout sessions in the areas of employment, education, health care and more.

DSCC participant Vera Lynn Lindquist, 17, and her grandmother, Cheryl Lindquist Calcese, said they enjoyed the “Awareness and Transition Services for Students with Disabilities” session. It gave them helpful information on sex education and tips for building good money management skills.

They plan to start a budget system at home after the conference. Lindquist, who has autism and other disorders, will get paid for doing chores and get a debit card to purchase items and track spending.

DSCC participant Sabrina Doueihi, 20, was among several self-advocates who shared their perspectives during the “Transition Success Stories” breakout session. She is a junior at Bradley College, where she is studying criminology. She hopes to go to law school and become a prosecutor.

She spoke about the importance of staying true to yourself and what you want to do. She also recommended that youth with disabilities focus on what they can do and who can help them achieve their goals.

“Trade stories and network”

For brothers Jaysen and Justen McMenamin, and their parents, the transition conference was a good opportunity to plan for life after high school.

Jaysen McMenamin, 18, is a senior at Woodland High School near Streator, where he is an honor roll student and honorary captain of the school’s football team. He’s interested in digital media and related job opportunities. Justen McMenamin, 14, is a freshman at Woodland High and interested in coding. Both brothers have Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and are enrolled with DSCC.

Their stepfather, Charles Cusick, said the family wanted to learn more about jobs and career fields that are accessible.

The brothers’ mom, Deanna Cox, said she appreciated the breakout session on Supplemental Security Income benefits. Jaysen and Justen’s dad passed away in June, and the session helped her better understand how to help her boys keep the benefits they’re entitled to.

The family met up with their DSCC Care Coordinator Kristin Lenover during the conference.

“If families can get away from work, there’s so much they will get out of being at the transition conference,” Lenover said. “Attending in person gives you so much access to all kinds of information. There are also opportunities to meet other families, trade stories and network.”

Thirty DSCC team members attended the conference to network, learn from others and strengthen their skillsets and tools to serve participant families.

DSCC also sponsored the conference’s health care track for providers who play a role in the transition from the pediatric to adult health care system and those who build youth’s capacity and health care skills to prepare for adulthood.

DSCC Transition Specialist Darcy Contri has helped plan the conference since it began 17 years ago. This year’s event was her last before she retires.

“I’m so grateful for and have loved being part of this great work,” Contri said. “Partnering with talented people from organizations across the state to help others has made a positive difference in so many lives. It is my hope the annual conference will continue to make an impact on improving adult outcomes for youth with disabilities for many more years.”

Visit DSCC’s Facebook page to see more photos from this year’s conference or read more on the DSCC’s website.

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