Friends Life Community helps teens and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities develop socially, grow personally, and enjoy community as they experience life together. The Nashville organization provides programming in employment, life skills, and arts programming, and social activities to 75 people ranging in age from 14 to over 50.
Friends Life Community has been able to help more adults with disabilities thanks to a SuperGrant from SmileDirectClub and the Nashville Predators Foundation. Friends Life Community used the funds for its Service Learning and Employment programs to teach participants (Friends) how to get and keep a job.
Because getting a job is key to independence.
“Our goal is for the Friends to gain meaningful employment so they can become more independent,” says Lauren Zook, director of philanthropy for Friends Life Community. “Too often, people with disabilities get out of high school and graduate to the couch. Friends Life Community is giving them the opportunity to grow and thrive in the world – to reach their fullest potential.”
Friends Life Community offers a three-step program to help the Friends, get ready for jobs: discovery and soft skills training, service learning (community volunteer work), and direct job coaching. It starts with classroom training where Friends learn how to write a resume, how to interview, and how to be at their best while on the job.
Once they’ve learned the basics, Friends go out into the community for hands-on learning opportunities. They work at nonprofits around Nashville in a position similar to an internship. The Friends have provided thousands of hours of volunteer work to nonprofits as participants gain job skills. They have assembled traffic lights, packed medical supply kits for Project C.U.R.E., and helped local churches set up for services.
“It’s a safe place for the Friends to try, fail, and have support to learn and try again,” Zook says.
When they’ve gotten enough experience, the big day arrives: They secure a paying job. Friends Life Community continues to help, providing a job coach who counsels the Friend while they work, providing the support they need to succeed.
Program participants aren’t the only ones who benefit from the job-training programs. “We’re not just teaching the Friends how to be contributing members of the community,” Zook says. “We’re teaching the community about the potential the Friends have. We’re teaching them about their abilities. The community learns about the benefits of inclusiveness.”
Friends Life Community has formalized that two-way learning process by training employees and managers who will work alongside a Friend through their Inclusive Employment training. “The SuperGrant has helped us do more of that,” Zook says.
Michael, 32, has been a Friend for 11 years. He’s in the group’s job training program and has worked at The Well, Lipscomb University, and Edley’s Bar-B-Que, where he clears tables and greets the guests. “I like helping people,” he says.
His goal: “I want to move up to a full-time job and get my own apartment,” he says. “Friends Life Community is helping me with that.”
Friends Life Community has done an impressive job placing its clients in jobs. They’ve found work for Friends at Publix, Edley’s BBQ, Donut Den, and Nicky’s Coal Fired. Nationwide, the employment rate for people with intellectual disabilities is 19%. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 53% of the Friends were employed.
Since many of the Friends are employed in restaurants, an industry hit hard by the pandemic, all but one lost their job. But the job-training continues via Zoom classes, so that when the Friends can return to work, they will be ready.
SmileDirectClub teamed up with the Nashville Predators Foundation in the 2019-2020 hockey season for the SuperGrant program. The duo gave five SuperGrants ranging from $25,000 to $100,000 annually to area organizations that empower people in times of transition. Investing in the people of Middle Tennessee is a way the Preds and SmileDirectClub can give back to the community.
“SuperGrants are given to organizations that offer the tools and skills needed to give people confidence as they go through a transition. Friends Life Community does this through their Service Learning and Employment program,” says Julia Wicoff, SmileDirectClub’s purpose platform director. “By being able to learn those necessary skills with the support of a job coach, they have the opportunity to build confidence as they transition into a permanent job.”
The SuperGrant helped Friends Life Community give more Friends access to job training and a bright future. Together, Friends Life Community, SmileDirectClub, and the Nashville Predators Foundation are working to help teens and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities gain the confidence they need to live their best lives.
You can learn more about Friends Life Community and how to support their mission on their website.