More than a service: Via of Lehigh Valley helps people with disabilities integrate into community


Matt Scott works at Wegmans food market and has Down syndrome. Via Lehigh Valley is an organization that helps people like Scott integrate into the community and live a productive and independent life. (Lucy Zhou/B&W Staff)

Fastened to his cap were two pins: a superstar pin for outstanding customer service and a pin celebrating 20 years at Wegmans. Matt Scott smiled as he transferred bundles of bananas from stacks of boxes to the proper display, his eyes lighting up behind the frame of his glasses. Living with Down syndrome doesn’t affect his ability to follow a routine work schedule, lift heavy boxes and stand on his feet Monday to Friday for five hours a day.

After graduating high school, Scott’s coach at Via helped him apply and get a job at Wegmans. Though he has a coach, she only comes once a week to check in. At 42 years old, Scott takes the bus to and from work alone and can maintain a job with support.

Via of the Lehigh Valley works closely with individuals of all ages with disabilities to help them succeed and live independently through various services such as integration, creative expressions and workshops. The organization works with people like Scott.

As part of Community Connections, a program intended to develop skills and encourage integration, participants volunteer at nonprofit agencies in the community.

Ashley Moser, manager of the program, said one primary goal is volunteering, whether through Meals on Wheels, animal shelters or public libraries.

“We are here for the consumers,” Moser said. “At the end of the week…you can go home knowing that you are helping better the lives of the individuals we serve.”

By sending them into the community, Via encourages communication and interaction with those with disabilities. Participants tend to stay long term in Community Connections, but those in employment services leave once they reach independence. They strive for integrated employment like Scott at Wegmans.

Michele Grasso, vice president of development at Via, said employers are becoming more open to hiring people with disabilities.

If they’re not ready for integration, individuals resort to small group employment like Cigars International, where they can experience working in a community-based setting first. Program manager Sean Hartman said the focus is on soft skills, including understanding professionalism and how to socialize. One coach is responsible for three participants, who follow the same rules as employees under Cigars.

“We expect a certain ability and understanding of what it means to have a job,” Hartman said. “They’re expected to do the job from start to finish.”

He said when the business was founded in 2015, it lacked exposure to people with disabilities. Now, Cigars is more educated and makes an effort to develop relationships with all 50 participants.

Workers with disabilities package and label cigars at Cigars International. Via of the Lehigh Valley sends workers to Cigars for employment experience in the community. (Lucy Zhou/B&W Staff)

Audrey Yanacek, a 27-year-old who has worked at Cigars for almost two years, said she’s good at organizing but has goals she wants to accomplish.

“Focusing is one of the big things I have trouble with sometimes,” Yanacek said.

Moser said it’s important for individuals to set daily goals to further their life skills and explore personal interests, which are further developed in another program called Creative Expressions.

Kali Chrush, the program coordinator, said everyone has an outcome or goal to focus on while doing activities they need and desire, ranging from drawing to cooking to crafting.

“We want to make sure that we’re either helping them grow or maintain their skill set, and it can be anything from money management, personal hygiene…working on motor skills,” Chrush said.

Coaches teach street awareness, stranger awareness, social skills and traffic safety during time spent in the community. They stress the importance of routine and consistency in the program and beyond.

Because Pennsylvania is an employment-first state, which makes employment accessible in the workforce regardless of disability, Via offers jobs through the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. However, anyone with an intellectual or developmental disability who doesn’t want to work can opt for Creative Expressions.

Individuals have the opportunity to gain vocational training and experience through Via Businesses and Industrial Services. About 105 workers ranging from 25 to 70 years old are tasked with assembling, packaging and labeling for several local companies. Abby Knibbs, the production manager, said workers assembled and packaged 1.3 million pieces for Redeeming Beauty Minerals in 2016 alone.

Megan Tegyi, manager of the workshop, said this program is a good transition because participants can be active and earn a paycheck while with friends.

“The goal is once guys come out of high school, they would come here for skill building and job training and…get into other programs like small group employment,” Tegyi said.

Via assesses everyone’s capabilities and possible health or safety needs. All workers earn a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, but some receive a prevailing salary of $11.69. Those whose productivity increases receive raises.

Scott is one of many successful individuals who gained employment within the community, aided by Via’s services. As he warmly greeted his co-workers and returned to his job, Scott looked like he belonged in his bright red Wegmans collared shirt.

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