Dr. Bev Weinberg, Founder and Executive Director of Integrate for Good, discusses how her organization works to create meaningful volunteer and leadership opportunities for transition age individuals with disabilities, and at the same time enrich local communities.

 Recorded October 18, 2022

Jill: Reimagining possibilities for those with disabilities. I'm Jill Horner, this is Comcast Newsmaker. With me is Dr. Bev Weinberg, she's founder and executive director of Integrate for Good. Thanks so much for being with me.

Bev: Thank you, Jill. I'm so excited to be here. This is a wonderful opportunity for us.

Jill: And your organization works to expand opportunities for individuals with disabilities and special needs, but at the same time, you work to enrich communities where individuals live.

Let's talk a little bit about how you do that. What is your mission and how do you work to create meaningful work and volunteer opportunities for individuals with special needs?

Bev: Sure. So the mission of Integrate for Good is really, tied into our vision. What we see is ultimately community where we don't leave anyone on the sidelines of opportunity.

So our mission, if we sum it up in one word, it's empowerment. So we empower people of all abilities to really share their talent. And we do that through inclusive volunteerism. We do it through leadership opportunities, cuz too often we don't see people with disabilities assuming the leadership positions that not only they deserve, but our community can benefit from those contributions.

And then we also look at meaningful employment for people with disabilities because our economy benefits when we don't leave that talent on the sidelines as well.

Jill: And let's focus on transition age youth. For individuals who are transitioning out of the school system, this can be a challenging time, but for many teens with disabilities, this can be particularly challenging to focus on what's next.

You have programs in place that are focused on just this. Let's first focus on Empowerment Lab. What's the concept?

Bev: Sure. So this was a program that came out of my work, working for about 25 years in local area school districts in Montgomery County and beyond. And I was realizing that students had a lot of support and services while they were in high school. Therapies that they needed and support and friendships and clubs and organizations and their families had that support too.

And the day that the bus didn't come anymore, then all of a sudden that was a huge void for families. So where a lot of people in that age group, juniors and seniors in high school without disabilities, they're thinking about, graduating high school and going into the military, or going into employment or going to college.

People with disabilities are left with a big question mark and are often left at home alone. Working parents or single working parents are left with students who might not be safe to even stay alone at home. So we wanted to make sure that while students in our community have opportunities to really figure out what is that bright future, what is that next step, that next chapter, we wanna make sure that people with disabilities in their families are empowered to also dream big and step into opportunities that benefit them as well. And they're not left out.

Jill: And that's the concept of Empowerment Lab really focusing on that. But you also to the point that you were saying that many young people go off to the next chapter of their lives after high school. This is something that you want all people to have the opportunity to do. Talk to us about Opening Doors on Campus and the concept of this and how you're working to provide meaningful opportunities for all participants.

Bev: Yeah, absolutely. So for a lot of people with disabilities, they might have grown up and their families have been involved in maybe more of a medical model kind of system where the focus has been on deficit and on disability, the disability being inherent in that person. And we really embrace the social model of disability embraced by the World Health Organization, which says that a disability doesn't have to be a disability, if you're in an environment that is conducive to you being able to contribute, and for you being able to thrive and sometimes only little micro accommodations are needed.

And we tend to find that a lot of the things we design are universal design for all people. Providing minutes to a meeting and print ahead of time so someone can feel prepared is just good practice for all people and companies and simple things like that.

It's not usually about building a ramp or building an elevator. Some of those big expensive things we think about, it's usually very small. Almost costless accommodations. So while we realize that there are opportunities for people with disabilities to now attend college, that it never had existed before, those opportunities are still reserved for people that do have a certain skill set and ability level, and people with more complex disabilities are still left out.

So that's why we started Opening Doors on Campus. We're at Ursinus College and Westchester and Temple University down in the city. Gweneth Mercy, Westchester. I think I named all five that we're on right now. We also have a waiting list so when we get more funding we can expand, but we bring people with complex disabilities who might not even qualify to take a class on campus or even audit that class.

They are leading inclusive volunteerism and they are assuming leadership positions. Some of them never having stepped foot on a campus, and without this program never would have that opportunity. So we're excited to open those doors wider, and our college and university partners have just been amazing in making this work happen.

Jill: And that's just one of the other opportunities you have available. And I just wanna quickly ask you, you do have additional opportunities called the Integrate for Good Leadership Incubator. And it helps to better prepare individuals for new volunteer experiences. But in addition to that, you're also looking for more businesses to be involved with the work that you do.

You want the individuals that you work with, to have a place to volunteer, to have these meaningful experiences, to volunteer, to work, to be part of communities.

Bev: Yes. And what we find is a lot of the connections , were based in research out of Temple University, my doctoral work in social capital, and the importance of community connection for physical and mental health outcomes, for employment outcomes.

And we noticed, that, a lot of us think about where did I get my first job or even a job I hold now. It was probably from a connection that I knew. Indeed and all those things work great too, but so much of the opportunity we have is from the connections that we have in our community. So we wanna make sure that people with disabilities have that same connection and those same opportunities to find out what is in my community that I can take advantage of and who can open doors for me.

So Leadership Incubator is phenomenal. We have a student right now who we realized had a passion for energy and technology and we got him a paid opportunity with Peco. So he is with the energy at the Forest Ambassador Program with Peco. We also employ people with disabilities ourselves. So while we believe a lot of times volunteering is a place to start, we believe in paid above minimum wage, competitive employment opportunities for people with disabilities.

They deserve it, and our community benefits as well.

Jill: And just a few seconds left, but you're always looking for more companies, welcoming additional companies to get involved with the work that you do.

Bev: Yeah, so we have worked with, companies as big as Merck and Dow and Colorcon, and Univest, and companies that have 10 employees, and we will come onto your site and engage your employees in team building through inclusive volunteerism led by people with and without disabilities on our team. It's a great team building opportunity and also a great way to take your corporate social responsibility values and put them into action.

So we know that people wanna stay at companies that embrace their culture and their shared values, and we look at how hard it is to attain and maintain employees right now in our economy. So you wanna keep the good people you have by letting them know we have these great values and we live them, and we put them into action every day. And we can come onto your company's location where you are and do that program along with you.

And we would love to share more about that.

Jill: Oh, thanks so much for joining me and people can find out more about the work that you do through your website. Thank you.

Bev: Thank you so much for having us.

Jill: I've been talking with Dr. Bev Weinberg. I'm Jill Horner for Comcast Newsmakers. For more conversations from across the country, you can visit our website at comcastnewsmakers.com.