Making new work experiences feel friendlier

For Ashlee Everett and Jenna Norstadt, learning how to manage a new job happens best when you start as a team.

Last spring, the pair began working at a local retirement home. Their duties started with cleaning and helping in the kitchen, but they’ve grown into more responsibilities: serving food and drinks to residents and helping with ice cream socials.

Everett and Norstadt were among the transition students who participated in a new opportunity in Douglas County: the Peer 2 Peer Program. By combining job skills and work experience with social supports, Peer 2 Peer helps students feel more confident starting out in new job settings.

Having a friend on her side from the start felt good to Everett. “I liked knowing I had someone to talk to, and seeing a different way of coping with challenges,” she said. Everett will be starting her senior year at South Umpqua High School this September.

For Norstrandt, who graduated in June, starting the job together let them get up to speed quickly. “I helped Ashley learn how to make the coffee, and she helped me with remembering the names of people who live there,” said Norstadt.

Both students agree that the Peer 2 Peer program gave them a helpful boost in feeling confident in their new workplace. 


Peer 2 Peer: A new twist on job training

Like most professionals in the transition network, Tiana Eovandi was thrilled to see students return to in-person learning. As a Douglas County Pre-ETS specialist, she was eager to connect students with new work experiences and get back into the routine of life before the pandemic. But she noticed that for many students, life was not back to normal.

“Some students came back with a real fear of public places. Others were grieving the loss of a loved one. We all were still dealing with impacts on mental health from the past two years,” said Eovandi.

In response, Eovandi did some brainstorming with Darci Shivers, transition network facilitator, on ways to rebuild students’ relationships that had been lost during the pandemic. They placed friendship and peer mentoring squarely at the center of the program, to strengthen student connections. By focusing on local employers, they nurture connections to the community. And by preparing the students with solid job skills, they help local businesses resolve their labor shortages.


Peers, Preparation, and Pizza Parties!

To launch the Peer 2 Peer as a pilot program, Eovaldi and Shivers partnered with the South Umpqua High School special education department and Youth Transition Program. They brought interested students together for a work readiness class, where they practiced skills that ranged from time management to communicating with a supervisor.

Some skills were practiced through cooperative games, like timing how long a pair could keep a conversation going. Some days involved role playing job situations, like a server bringing a meal out to a customer. Other fun events (pizza party!) strengthened the bonds of friendship. Through it all, students learned they could rely on each other for support. 

Student partners begin their job together and are paid a competitive wage through a Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) grant. In this first year of the Peer 2 Peer program, job sites included J Sloppy Burgers, Adams House Assisted Living Community, the Myrtle Creek Library, and the Umpqua  Valley Summer Arts Festival.


What’s next for Peer 2 Peer?

As students finish their work experiences their next steps might be negotiating an internship, connecting with Vocational Rehabilitation, applying to an open position, or looking into higher education. Some students, including Ashlee Everett, plan to enroll in Peer 2 Peer again next year. Others, Like Jenna Norstadt, found a career path they love and hope to stay on with their employer.

Eovaldi and Shivers plan to keep developing the Peer 2 Peer program. As with any pilot project, unexpected challenges forced them to adapt, stay flexible, and focus on positive outcomes. They learned to problem-solve transportation issues, roll with changes due to COVID exposures, and expect the unexpected, always.

“I’ve got a notebook full of problem-solving points for next year! But the growth and confidence we saw in our students, the way they became part of a community? That made all that problem-solving worthwhile,” she said.”