May 2012

Featured Emerging Leader

Transition and Employment Projects

One of the goals of the Rural Institute Transition and Employment Projects is to expand the vision of what is possible for youth and young adults with developmental disabilities to learn, live, work and play in their communities. We have been capturing stories of Montanans under age 34 who have a developmental disability according to the Montana definition and who have creatively organized their supports to:


  • Live in the community (on their own or with family or friends) and/or
  • Work in the community (including owning their own business) and/or
  • Access inclusive education (high school, college, community classes) and/or
  • Participate in recreation and leisure activities that are inclusive (that is, alongside people without disabilities)

Each month, we share one of these stories with Listserv members. You may also read about Montana's Emerging Leaders in our Featured EL Archives, 2009 EL Showcase [PDF] and 2010 EL Showcase [PDF]. To nominate yourself or someone else as an Emerging Leader, visit the Rural Institute Transition and Employment Projects web site.


By Kim Brown, Transition and Employment Projects Coordinator


Devin is a senior at Frenchtown High School. He has cerebral palsy and uses a motorized wheelchair, but that hasn't prevented him from being an integral part of his community. Devin's teacher and coach, Phil McLendon, nominated him as an Emerging Leader, writing, "Devin is an incredible young adult and I am so lucky and fortunate to know him and to help him go into the world a little more prepared after he graduates." Devin's local newspaper even profiled him in a January 23, 2011 Missoulian article spotlighting his contributions as assistant basketball coach.



How did Devin come to be the assistant coach? Coach Phil explains that he has been Devin's life skills, transition and self-advocacy teacher for three years and early on became keenly aware of Devin's love for basketball. One night Phil was watching an ESPN documentary called "Picking up Eddie" about a 60-year-old man who used a wheelchair and whose local team had been picking him up and taking him to their home games for 40-50 years. Phil showed the film to Devin and an idea was born - why couldn't Devin be part of the school basketball team? It would provide him with a sense of belonging and an awareness of responsibility. Last year Devin became the assistant coach of the freshmen boys' basketball team and this year he is assistant coach for the boys' junior varsity squad. Devin and Coach PhilHe provides pep talks in the locker room and on the bench. He encourages the players to turn their fear into motivation. He demonstrates courage, selflessness and motivation. He offers the players extra support, much like a big brother might do. Through Devin's coaching, the players begin to see their own gifts, abilities and strengths. Devin says he likes being part of something that makes a difference and "feeling like I fit somewhere."


Coach Phil says Devin quickly learned his responsibilities as assistant coach. "Devin is naturally a 'rah rah' kid and he's he is a trickster who gives back with his smile and friendship. He brings a level of leadership to the team; Devin commands respect and the boys respond."


Devin and the National Guard at schoolDevin leads by example. The National Guard often visits the school at lunchtime and provides athletic challenges, such as the chance to see how many pull-ups an individual can do. Devin would generally watch. One day Coach Phil asked if he wanted to do the pull-ups and Devin said, "Yes!" Phil and another assistant carried him to the bar, helped put his hands around the bar, and the kids in the lunchroom roared. According to Coach Phil, the Frenchtown teachers and administrators foster an environment of equality and of recognizing everyone's unique talents and strengths. Devin's mom, Wendy, says this attitude extends beyond the school walls: "Frenchtown is an exceptional community and we love calling it home!"



Devin and another individual with a disability have lived in their own apartment since September 2011. They have Personal Care Attendants (PCAs) who provide support and assistance. For example, once a week Devin figures out what he wants to eat and what household goods he needs and one of the PCAs takes him shopping. Devin's mom takes care of his bills for now.


After Graduation:

Computers are Devin's passion. He fixes his grandpa's computer whenever necessary...and his grandpa lives in North Carolina! (Devin uses remote access to correct the computer's problems from afar.) Devin has already been accepted into the University of Montana's College of Technology in Missoula, where he plans to pursue a degree in computer/technology support. He will live in student housing with a roommate (who doesn't have a disability) he has known and been close friends with since the sixth grade.


Interests and Activities:

Devin is an active young man with lots of interests beyond basketball and computers. In April, he received an early graduation present - a trip to Hawaii with his family - and was excited about the possibilities for riding in a helicopter, seeing the whales, and maybe doing a bit of girl watching on the beach.

 Devin and his family relaxing on their boat

  Devin's family tossing him into the water from their boat

He enjoys camping with his family. His two brothers take their bikes and Devin takes his power chair. One time Devin went tubing with his family pulling him in their boat. Only a year earlier, he'd had surgery to reconstruct his hip and had spent much of the subsequent twelve months rehabilitating the joint. Devin's mom was horrified when he flew backwards off the tube. His self-righting life vest immediately pulled him to the surface and when he popped up out of the water, Devin shouted, "I'm good!"...much to the relief of his family members. Wendy says she's always tried not to place special limitations on Devin. "I ask myself, 'Would I let my other kids do it?' If the answer is yes, then I let Devin do it. I try not to treat him any differently."


Devin is involved in a youth group through his church (he went to church camp once, too), and attends a variety of community events (plays, board meetings, school sporting events, etc.) At his high school prom, Devin's date rode in this lap and they reportedly stole the show. Their peers gave them a standing ovation and according to Wendy, "There wasn't a dry eye in the room!" In March he took part in Senior Night with his mom and stepdad (Ty), and they were "delighted to be part of this wonderful event."


Devin and his prom dateDevin and his prom date


Earlier this school year, Devin spoke in front of the entire freshman class about disabilities and the barriers and issues people with disabilities face. When his parents attended his younger brother's basketball game that night, they received all kinds of positive feedback about Devin's self-awareness talk. People said it was a "big eye-opener for the kids and teachers" because people don't always realize Devin's depth. The Frenchtown School Board gave Devin a plaque to honor him and in appreciation of his speech.



A variety of different services, organizations and agencies have played a role in Devin's successful transition preparation. His Personal Care Attendants are provided through Northwest Home Care and are funded through Home and Community-based Services under the PD (Physically Disabled) Waiver. Devin raves about his case manager, Tim Laskowski, who has served him since Devin was five years old. (Wendy says Devin may now be receiving adult case management services, but if so, the transition was smooth with no change or disruption in services.)


Devin just connected with Vocational Rehabilitation. VR will pay for his college tuition; he will be responsible for his books and housing costs. Devin recently received a $1000 scholarship through the College of Technology. The University of Montana "Outstanding Achievement and Anticipation of Leadership, Values and Success at UM" award will help cover some of his post-secondary education expenses.


Without strong self-advocacy and leadership skills, college might have seemed out of reach for Devin. Two programs helped build his confidence and convince him he could succeed. YODA (Youth Opening Doors through Advocacy) through Summit Independent Living Center teaches young people self-advocacy, leadership and independent living skills, and encourages their connection-building and involvement in the community. Devin "really enjoys working with them - they provide a great service."


The second program Devin considers foundational to his success is MYLF, the Montana Youth Leadership Forum, which brings students to Helena for a week of living in college dorms and developing leadership skills. "MYLF really helped me grow up and become a responsible adult. I'll never be the same after MYLF." Devin gained self-confidence and became actively involved in advocating for youth with disabilities. "When I was young, I was scared when I thought about living on my own. MYLF taught me it is not scary. There are challenges but it is not scary. MYLF gets you set up with all different kinds of supports." In addition to guest speakers sharing resources and transition-related information, MYLF teaches delegates about the legal system and offers them the chance to participate in a mock Legislature at the Capitol. Devin attended MYLF the summer after his sophomore year and was invited to represent Montana at the National Youth Leadership Network gathering in Kansas in the fall of 2010.


For Devin's family, Eagle Mount was profoundly influential and life changing. They had always been "outdoorsy" people, actively enjoying Montana's wide open spaces. After Devin was born, it sometimes felt overwhelming to plan outings (are there accessible bathrooms? are the trails navigable in a power wheelchair?) and to find/build/buy/gather/prepare the necessary adaptive equipment. It seemed easier to stay home. Eleven years ago, Wendy learned about Eagle Mount in Bozeman. She signed Devin up for the downhill ski program and Eagle Mount went to work. Staff wanted Devin to sit while skiing, but he insisted on standing. Devin's stepdad modified his old "hound dogs" ("awful nighttime leg braces", according to Wendy) so Devin could stand and ski using a walker. Eagle Mount provided a four-person team of "ski buddies" who assisted Devin while he skied. That winter Devin and his family skied together every weekend. Wendy still exudes excitement and joy when she describes her realization that season on the ski hill: "Oh my gosh! We're doing something we love to do again! This is something we didn't think we could do again after having a child with a disability."



Coach Phil praises Devin for "teaching his teachers so much about life" and expresses gratitude for having had the opportunity to work with this amazing young man. He has "no doubt that Devin will soar high." When asked what advice he would give other teachers, parents and service providers, Phil says, "Open your heart. Look for strengths and what people have to offer....their ideas, thoughts, dreams, visions, losses, and heartbreaks. Open a door and see what comes of it. Don't be afraid. Involve, encourage, empower."


Devin's mom has words of wisdom to share with other parents. "Remember it is a journey. There is good and bad with any through it." She feels fortunate that Devin is very articulate and intellectual, and that they tend to balance one another's moods (when she's feeling down, he's "up" and vice versa). Wendy and her family members draw tremendous strength from their faith. "I believe that we view Devin through 'worldly' eyes, and we see him as 'broken' because we don't have the ability to see him through 'God's eyes' yet. I believe God sees something entirely different when He looks at Devin - and in His eyes Devin is exactly as God wanted him. My job is to trust God and believe some day, standing next to my Lord and Savior, it will be clear to me why He allowed us to struggle and face these obstacles on our journey."


Wendy describes moments of fear, frustration, and panic that she now sees as character-building experiences. "I have to rely on other people to support me, Devin, and my family. It is okay to reach out, to let others embrace and help our family. That said, I wouldn't want to relive the moment of a giving birth to a 2-pound preemie. I felt anger and sadness for myself. Later, the anger and sadness were for my child and the things he would never experience. Over the years we've had constant reminders of the losses. Now I say, 'Go out and get these experiences for your child!' Do it while they're smaller and lightweight so you can move them around more easily. Do it even when you are tired."


In Wendy's view, connectivity is critical to a child's success - let the world get to know and love your son or daughter. She also emphasizes that parents must not be afraid to advocate for their child to experience everything they have a right and desire to experience. "When I first started dating Ty, I remember how proud he was introducing us to everyone he knew: 'This is my family.' I remember being ashamed and depressed because here was this 'stranger' embracing and unconditionally loving me but most importantly, loving my little boy! I learned a valuable lesson that day - don't underestimate the healing power of others. I married that man 14 years ago! Teamwork is a wonderful thing and I couldn't have persevered without my helpmate."


Devin has advice for other young people with disabilities who are preparing for their transition from high school: "Have a strong support system. Have something you can look forward to. Have faith. If I didn't have faith in God, I wouldn't be the kid I am today. Just because you believe in God doesn't mean it's always easy. You'll encounter some obstacles, but God's going to carry you through."


Congratulations to Devin on his upcoming high school graduation - we look forward to an Emerging Leader Update from him once he's settled into college life!



 Devin and his family on Senior Night






Kim Brown
MT Transition Listserv


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This publication was produced by the University of Montana's

Rural Institute Transition and Employment Projects.