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 location just north of Evanston Hospital. During its three decades of preparing 18-28 year-olds with disabilities to live on their own, P.A.C.E. has changed its main location from Evanston to Skokie, and then in 2014 to Chicago. P.A.C.E. has expanded its functional learning options for students, but the foundational objectives still focus on functional academics, employment development and support, life skills instruction, and age-appropriate social experiences and support.
Evanston resident, Iva Kolarov Ph.D. 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, “ she said. Students also have the opportunity to secure paid employment in the third year, she said
The 3-year P.A.C.E. certificate program has earned the designation as the only Chicago post-secondary Comprehension Transition Program (CTP). That designation now provides students with intellectual disabilities the eligibility to receive Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Opportunity Grants, and Work Study subsidies. The students being served 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.
Other recent additions to the National Louis’s P.A.C.E. are two new extended program options. “We call them P.A.C.E. Ahead and P.A.C.E. Beyond,” said Dr. Kolarov, P.A.C.E. Ahead is designed for NLU P.A.C.E. graduates who want more time to transition into independent living. These students live in P.A.C.E. residence hall apartments on W. Fullerton in Lincoln Park and practice apartment living and independent living skills — but with a wide safety net of residential staff there 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, resume 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, 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 3-year program who are already living independently in the community. Employment development and support are key parts of the program, as well as independent living skills and social development. P.A.C.E. Beyond participants sign up quarterly for the type of support and frequency of services they need to succeed independently
According to Dr. Kolarov, a vital part of the P.A.C.E. process are the families. “Families are part of the team, and our program is very person-centered,” said Dr. Kolarov. “Different students need support with different skills, and we are about customizing the curriculum.” Sometimes a student can gain significant confidence by taking a social skills class focusing on developing vocal inflection, and frequently the young adults need support in learning to take initiative socially. Dr. Kolarov says that strengthening social skills is challenging for students but an important part of P.A.C.E, and part of tuition covers the expenses for regularly scheduled social outings and events for certificate students.
Twenty-eight year-old Kevin Lundin, is a P.AC.E. alum who both lives and works in Evanston. Mr. Lundin grew up in a western suburb where he graduated 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 PACE program,” said Mr. Lundrin. “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 product cartons totaling 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 twenty-nine years old, is tackling many of his personal goals and feeling pretty successful. He works five days a week, lives in an apartment and likes his two roommates, and is learning to live within a budget. Perhaps most of all 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 the 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 earn how to act in a professional way when he’s on the job. He’s been a dishwasher at Hewn Bakery since 2015 and 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!”
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. Evanston business establishments such at Jewel, Happy Husky Bakery, Unleashed, Hewn Bakery, See Jane Sparkle, and Whole Foods are sites where students or grads are currently employed or have internships. CJE (Chicago Jewish Elderly) is also an employment partner and one of the longest-standing partners to hire program alums and provide employment training to P.A.C.E. interns. 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.