Evanston has long been a community stakeholder in National Louis University’s 30-year-old P.A.C.E. program (Path to Academics, Community and Employment). The program serving young adults with multiple intellectual and learning disabilities was launched in Evanston in 1989 at NLU’s former campus, just north of Evanston Hospital on Ridge Avenue.
During its three decades of preparing 18 to 28 year-olds with disabilities to live on their own, P.A.C.E. has changed its main location from Evanston to Skokie, and then to Chicago.
P.A.C.E. has expanded its functional learning options for students, but the foundational objectives still focus on employment development and support, life skills instruction, and age-appropriate social experiences and support. P.A.C.E. students have diagnoses that include high-functioning autism spectrum disorders, executive-function disorder, speech and language impairment, or others that might interfere with academic learning and success in traditional college programs.
Evanston resident Iva Kolarov, is at the helm of P.A.C.E. and has served as Executive Director since 2015. She has been one of the architects of the recent one-year expansion to the original two-year certificate program.
“The true test of our success is what happens to our students when they leave our program,” said Dr. Kolarov. “We found that many families were a bit nervous about their children’s transition to independence, so starting in fall of 2017 we added a third year to our P.A.C.E. certificate program. That third year is in place to give more time for the students to practice what they’ve learned – with support. We call our two new program options P.A.C.E. Ahead and P.A.C.E. Beyond, and both of them qualify eligible students to receive federal financial aid.”
Both programs have earned designations as the only Chicago post-secondary Comprehensive Transition Programs. As such, both programs are now providing students with intellectual disabilities the eligibility to receive Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants, and Federal Work Study subsidies.
P.A.C.E. Ahead is designed for NLU P.A.C.E. graduates who would like additional time to transition into independent living. These students live in P.A.C.E. residence hall apartments in Chicago’s Lincoln Park and practice independent living skills – with a wide safety net of residential staff to provide emergency support.
Students work four days a week at paid employment sites and also meet weekly with P.A.C.E. employment instructors for coaching in a variety of areas. They practice interview preparation, resumé writing, on-job communication skills, job searching know-how, and other aspects of employment readiness and management.
P.A.C.E. Ahead students also receive advanced life skills instruction in their individual residences to improve their housekeeping skills, cooking facility, and medication management. All Ahead students take part in health and wellness activities and participate in and help plan social activities.
P.A.C.E. Beyond provides continuing education opportunities for graduates of the two-year program who are ready to live independently in the community. Employment development and support are key parts of the program, as well as independent living skills and social development. Participants sign up quarterly for the type of support and frequency of services they need to succeed independently. Making and successfully managing a personal budget and mastering public transportation logistics are types of support P.A.C.E. instructional staff provides.
Dr. Kolarov said a vital part of the P.A.C.E. process is the families. “Families are part of the team, and our program is very person-centered. Different students need support with different skills, and we are about customizing the curriculum.”
Sometimes a student can gain significant confidence by taking a speech class focusing on developing vocal inflection, and frequently the young adults need support in learning to take initiative socially.
Strengthening social skills is a challenging but important part of P.A.C.E, Dr. Kolarov said, and part of tuition covers the expenses for regularly scheduled social outings and events.
Twenty-eight year-old Kevin Lundin is a P.AC.E. alum who lives and works in Evanston. Mr. Lundin grew up in a western suburb, where he graduated from high school and then lived at home with his parents. Because of a disability, he rejected the notion of college but wanted something else in his future besides small-part time jobs and dependence on his family.
“I give my mom and dad credit for researching online and finding out about the P.A.C.E. program,” said Mr. Lundin. “Right away I was interested, because P.A.C.E. is a residential program, not a day program; and I knew I would be able to have roommates, take classes, and have internships too. When I started at P.A.C.E. in 2010, students took classes at the Skokie location and lived in the Extended Stay America just a couple of blocks away. I was excited about living in a residence hall but nervous at first, and my mom and dad thought I’d probably be calling home a real lot. But I actually didn’t need to call them all the time. I took to the program pretty quickly, made friends, and liked the support it gave me.”
The multiple work internships and part-time jobs Mr. Lundin experienced as a P.A.C.E. student gave him opportunities to think about what kind of post-graduation job and setting would be a good match for his personality and skill strengths.
“I moved to Evanston and am a full-time dairy clerk at the Jewel near my condo. I am a systematic person and pay attention to details, so it’s probably a job that fits me well,” he said.
As the person in charge of the store’s dairy operation, he orders products from the vendors, makes the display plans for sale items, meets deliveries, and helps break down cartons holding about 400 dairy and juice products daily, oversees product rotation, and handles much of the paperwork for the department.
Mr. Lundin said, “I think I’ve shown my bosses that I’m committed, and I hope to keep advancing.”
Anton Gadbois is a P.A.C.E. graduate who, at 29, is tackling many of his personal goals and feeling pretty successful. He has a full-time job, lives in an apartment and likes his two roommates, and is learning to live within a budget. Perhaps most of all, he said, he likes living in Evanston close enough to the lake so that he can walk there.
“I’m actually living one of my dreams,” Mr. Gadbois said. “I am living in a place that I like and where I can actually go down to Lake Michigan when I want to and have time off. I love the lake, I love working out and socializing at the Y in Evanston, and I really like Hewn, where I work.”
Mr. Gadbois said that the five or six internships arranged through the P.A.C.E. program helped him adapt to different work environments and helped him learn how to act in a professional way when he is on the job. He has been a dishwasher at Hewn Bakery since 2015 and says he feels his bosses are invested in his growth and success.
“But the problem is that bread and other food is so good here that pretty soon I won’t fit in my jeans,” he said.
P.A.C.E. students receive college credit for internships, which include positions in areas such as food service, eldercare, retail operations, childcare, administrative support, healthcare, and pet care. Approximately 70% of P.A.C.E. graduates are working in paid positions and are living independently. Students or alums are currently employed in such Evanston business establishments as Jewel, Happy Husky Bakery, Unleashed, Hewn Bakery, See Jane Sparkle, and Whole Foods.
P.A.C.E.’s mission is to empower young adults to reach their full potential, and many of those young men and women are now playing a valued role in Evanston.