NORTH ADAMS — Berkshire Family & Individual Resources is taking a new approach to helping its students transition into employment and research possible career opportunities.
The nonprofit that works with people who have developmental disabilities recently opened its Learning Lab at the BFAIR Bottle and Can Redemption Center at 1000 Massachusetts Ave., which BFAIR has owned since 2019 and operated for 12 years.
The two-room space, which took a month to renovate, was set up to house all five elements involved in the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission’s Pre-Employment Training Program in one place for the first time.
“The Learning Lab is an idea that we came up with to help better serve the students in our program,” said Becky McAllister, BFAIR’s director of employment services.
The program consists of five steps: work readiness; career exploration; work-based learning experience; self-advocacy and mentoring instruction; and counseling on enrollment into either college or other training programs.
Participants are students ages 14 to 22 who have a documented disability and are enrolled in either high school or postsecondary education. The work readiness piece includes working with students on communication, attitude, social skills, teamwork and attendance.
“We help them build resumes and they participate in mock interviews,” McAllister said. “It’s essentially all the skills that they need to become employed after school.”
BFAIR serves students who attend five Berkshire County public high schools, the BART Charter School, Berkshire Community College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
The new space includes a workroom that features a workbench, four computers that participants can use to run software programs that contain information kits on different types of career opportunities, and a 75-inch Smartboard. Special chairs are available for students who have trouble sitting still.
“Students can actually go through all the whole process with the kits with the software that we purchased and it’s right on the Smartboard so the kids can work on it together and with the staff, which is pretty cool,” McAllister said. “We’ve tried to adapt this to the population that we work with.”
With social distancing requirements, four students can work in the lab at the same time. It’s expected that six to eight students will be able to work together after social distancing ends.
“It’s a hands-on experience, which the students typically don’t have the option to do,” McAllister said. “You go through a whole set of tasks and skills to work your way up to the hands-on experience, and its gives the kids feedback on areas where they were very exceptional [and with] what they might need extra help with.”
The second room has a lounge where the students can relax.
“The goal with the Learning Lab was to have a space that was a comfortable, fun space so kids didn’t feel like they were leaving school and then coming back here to stand in front of a teacher and be in school again,” McAllister said.
“It’s a fun, colorful space that doesn’t feel like school when you’re here. We felt in the past that it did, so, students weren’t as likely to come.”
The new environment is conducive to learning.
“We just felt that in order to get students to really participate ... and come out of their shells, they need to be in a different setting that’s not like a classroom,” McAllister said.
“Before, we used to take the students into a conference room and do all the components with these students, but it wasn’t super interactive. ... Now, with all the technology and the software that we purchased, everything is more hands-on, so, the students are really getting the full experience, especially with the career exploration.”