Growing in capacity, numbers, and options

When the South Umpqua transition team designed a new approach to summer internships in 2022, they expected good results. The Peer2Peer pilot project aimed to create stronger social connections to help students thrive in new work environments–and it worked, just as they’d planned. In fact, the program was so successful that every participant asked to be involved again this year, along with a good number of new students and businesses who signed on.

 How does a school district handle a pilot project that doubles in size over the course of a year? According to Rick Burton, director of Student Services at South Umpqua School District, it starts by saying yes.

 “We’re a small district, but we do big things because we always say yes. Our team steps up to divide and conquer the work, and we figure it out step by step. Our goal was to create a paid job program that gave transition students autonomy and developed relationships with peer mentors, all based on real-world work experiences. Peer2Peer does all that very effectively. It’s still not perfect, but we never let perfect get in the way of doing good,” said Burton.

About the Peer2Peer Program

This summer internship project matches transition students who are ready for a more advanced work experience with student mentors who are interested in jobs that help others. The mentor-mentee pairs work together in a work experience chosen by the transition student—a job that matches both their aptitude and abilities. Mentors receive training in positive communication and job coaching.

The peer groups begin by getting to know each other—their expectations, strengths, triggers and needs. They attend the Umpqua Community College Day of Discovery together, practice using the local bus transit system, and work together on tasks like acquiring food handler cards.  Once the students are matched to job opportunities, the paid work period is sixty hours. This year, the Vocational Rehabilitation grant also covers traveling worksite coordinators for additional student support.

Building confidence and relationships

For the students, Peer2Peer offers a unique opportunity to learn both hands-on job skills and person-to-person skills.  That combination is what motivated students like Olivia Redfeard to return for another summer. Redfeard, age 20, is a transition student in the South Umpqua School District. Last summer she worked at Ohana Paw Spa, a dog grooming business. She enjoyed washing and drying the dogs, and using the bus system was valuable too. But working in a positive environment was just as important.

“I want to learn more, but I also want to talk to people. I want to make more friends,” said Redfeard.

Krystal Gomez, age 18, is also a returning transition student. She worked at the Myrtle Creek Library last summer. “I learned a lot about how to keep things organized,” she said. This year, she hopes to try something new to expand her skills, but she’s still counting on the positive, friendly atmosphere that the Peer2Peer program creates.

For mentor student Stormi Fye, age 17, returning to the Peer2Peer program gives her a chance to build on her mentoring skills from last year.  “I learned how to calmly de-escalate stressful situations. I want to keep working on good communication skills and patience,” she said.

The students’ goals come as no surprise to Burton. “We’re focusing on jobs beyond the typical janitorial, agricultural, or fast-food, which can be isolating and repetitive. Work is more engaging when it matches aptitude.  But the emotional side matters, by building confidence and the ability to cope. That’s the part that is hard to measure, but that is where this program shines,” he said.

As Burton explained, Peer2Peer introduces new career possibilities for mentors as well. “Our mentors are drawn to helping others, but often don’t know about careers in vocational rehab, advocating and supporting people with disabilities— areas where we desperately need more people,” he said.

What’s next for Peer2Peer?

The South Umpqua Peer2Peer program has drawn in professionals from a variety of roles in the district. The team includes Elizabeth Hunter, YTP coordinator; Beau Shelby, school counselor; Ryan Jephson, district behavior coordinator; Lori Risner, developmental learning center instructor; Alyce Moore, case manager and transition support; and Les Rogers, transition network facilitator. Together they plan to continue growing the Peer2Peer summer program. One vision is to take it county-wide, with their school as a hub for the project.

For other districts hoping to add a Peer2Peer-style program, Burton has some advice:

“Start by saying yes to every opportunity. Then build a team that works collaboratively so no one person is overwhelmed. Know that things will go wrong, but don’t let that stop you. This is about students’ growth and development, and not exposing them to challenges is as much a disservice as not teaching at all.”

Krystal Gomez and Olivia Redfeard

Stormi Fye