Andraéa LaVant: My name is Andraéa LaVant and I am the Inclusion Specialist at the Girl Scout Council of the Nation's Capital. And my role is really to ensure that girls of all abilities are able to participate in the 100 year tradition that is Girl Scouting.
Lidia Soto-Harmon: Andraéa heads up our inclusion efforts for the whole organization, and what that means is that she not only works to bring kids that, girls who have physical or intellectual disabilities into the organization, she also is a role model for all of these troop leaders who are wanting to include girls but need some help in figuring out what accommodations they should make in order to be able to do this. Andraéa LaVant: I actually started out as a speaker for one of our conferences about four years ago. And that was my entry into kind of remembering 'oh yeah, Girl Scouts was a great place' you know, in terms of growing up. So when the job opportunity came open, I seized it.
Jocelyn Garay: Well, at the conference, she meets all of the girls, she gets to talk to them making sure they're okay, but I think where her impact is most seen is during her summer camp where she hosts a summer camp for girls with disabilities. It's a very small camp but it gives her the opportunity to kind of talk to these girls one-on-one, and it gives these girls a real role model; someone they can see, someone they can look up to, someone they can learn to be like and learn from. I think her confidence and just her passion is kind of fed to the girls through that experience.
Andraéa LaVant: So, I've actually been at Girl Scouts for just over two years, and I was a Girl Scout myself. And I remember that as a Girl Scout, other than school, Girl Scouts was really one experience that I had where I was able to fully participate. And as a wheelchair user, sometimes there are things that I wasn't able to do growing up, but I remember going to camp. As a teenager, I think my goal was really just to be included, and I didn't really want my disability to be something that anybody really thought about. My parents helped me to just be as independent as possible; to go to school, and to leave home, and to forge out on my own, my own path. So I decided to go to school three-and-a-half hours from home. So Voc. Rehab. actually, I was introduced to them when I was in high school. I received a portion of my funds for school came from VR, had some scholarship money. They also helped fund my vehicle, which was incredibly helpful. I got on SSI when I was 18, transitioning actually into college. What it really did for me, which was huge, was allow me to live and go to school at the same time. Because, of course as a person with a disability, your expenses tend to be more, and so the SSI allowed me to do that successfully. One thing that my mother always told us growing up was to find a job that you would do even if you didn't get paid, so that was always my goal, you know, just figuring out what it was that I was passionate about. But all of the things that as a person with a disability that you can encounter that make working have to be a decision, really, for people with disabilities - am I going to have the appropriate care, personal care, because when I was on you know, full benefits, that was something that was provided. So then when you start working, some of those benefits are taken away, and so you're worried about that. So my previous job before coming to Girl Scouts was as a youth development specialist.
Jocelyn Garay: And Andraéa definitely has that passion of serving people with disabilities and I can honestly and personally say that Andraéa has completely changed my life. Andraéa has given me so much more knowledge on people with a disability, which is I think what other people with disabilities can bring to organizations all over the place.
Andraéa LaVant: Really that's what motivates me is knowing that lives are changed and that there's impact made because I come to work, and if I don't, it might not get done otherwise. Ticket to Work, you know, that's a tool that's in place for you to do those things and pursue what it is that you desire to do.
Jocelyn Garay: I am inspired every day by the work that Andraéa LaVant does in this organization because it makes us stronger. The fact that we have someone who is not only the embodiment of what it's like to be a role model for others, but that she has so much kindness in her heart to constantly be looking at ways of including other people in her work. It is, you know, it is one of the most inspiring things that I get to do in this job is to see her work, not only with all of the volunteers that she works with, but with the girls, and with the staff in this organization.
Andraéa LaVant: The opportunity to be a contributing member of society is huge, I mean what I do know is I wouldn't be where I am physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, all of those things if it weren't for you know, this being here. I had an opportunity to meet with President Obama this summer to a Girl Scout meeting in the afternoon making cookies. And I mean, it's the best of both, you know, all worlds. And you know, the reactions of the girls is still the best part, I kid you not. Just those other experiences are great. Seeing a girl learn a song, watching a girl from one year at camp who is super shy and doesn't say much, to the next year she's singing and you know dancing and wants to lead and all of those things, that for me, is priceless and why I do what I do.
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Helping Young People with Disabilities Find Their Passion:
Andraéa LaVant’s Story
Published in 2014
Andraéa LaVant took her position at the front of a gymnasium full of parents who did not know what to expect from Camp Starfish’s “Passion Show.” Camp Starfish is a Girl Scout camp in Rockville, MD, where girls with developmental disabilities can make friends and discover new experiences in a supportive environment. As the Inclusion Specialist for the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital (GSCNC), Andraéa acts as a mentor to teens. She knows first-hand what it is like to negotiate adolescence with a disability. As a young woman with muscular dystrophy who successfully navigated college and the workforce, Andraéa is a strong role model for the girls. At 30, she is young enough to remember the importance of establishing a sense of one’s identity early on. Too often, Andraéa notes, children can grow up defined by their disability. Camp Starfish’s Passion Show was one of many self-awareness exercises designed to help the girls learn about the skills and the friendships they are capable of having. It was a celebration of each child’s “passion,” and each camper began a tentative walk down the makeshift runway knowing that Andraéa and the other girls at Starfish had her back. Each prepared throughout the week by exploring those things that bring her joy and the special talents that make her unique. Drawing the girls out requires a level of patience and intuition that can be hard to find. Andraéa possesses these valuable attributes, making her well-suited to her role.
She donned a feather boa for the occasion and moved through the crowd in a power wheelchair, connecting with the audience and modeling the leadership qualities she hopes to cultivate in her campers. “Let’s give it up for Jane!” she shouted from a microphone.
Jane, a young lady with autism, is uneasy in crowded spaces. Her face emerged from stage right, staring at the large group before her with wide eyes. Timidly clutching a baseball bat and glove, she was unsure about walking out in front of all those people staring at her. Andraéa encouraged Jane with a gesture and continued, “Jane enjoys baseball and has a memory for statistics and facts that would blow you away!”
As cheers erupted from each side of the runway, Jane’s posture straightened. The acknowledgement from the room acted like a magnetic force that pulled her from the sidelines. She walked with purpose, and by the time she reached the end of the runway, reversed direction with a sassy pivot before returning to sit by fellow campers. Starfish was a positive experience, according to Jane’s mother, who had not seen her daughter settle in so comfortably with peers before. For some young people with developmental disabilities, social skills are a critical pre-requisite to personal and professional achievements.
From Mentee to Mentor
Andraéa was fortunate to grow up with parents who were strong role models, who taught her that her disability did not have to prevent her from pursuing college and satisfying work, or other activities that brought her fulfillment. She received Supplemental Security Income (SSI) but was determined to earn enough on her own so she would not have to rely on a fixed income.
Ticket to Work and Work Incentives
After earning a bachelor’s degree from Middle Tennessee State University in 2006, Andraéa considered how she would transition from school to the workforce. She did some research online and found information on Social Security’s website about employment and disability benefits (see benefits counseling box below). Andraéa learned she was eligible to receive free employment support services such as career counseling and help with a job hunt. Through Social Security’s Ticket to Work program, state Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) agencies and authorized providers known as “Employment Networks” (ENs) help recipients of Social Security disability benefits (age 18 through 64) prepare for, find and maintain employment. The program is best suited for people like Andraéa who are committed to achieving financial independence through eventual full-time employment.
Andraéa found help at her state VR agency. Together, Andraéa and her VR counselor developed an Individualized Plan for Employment, a roadmap to help her reach her goals. While she made progress toward these goals, Andraéa did not have to undergo Social Security’s medical Continuing Disability Reviews (CDR). The VR counselor also helped her learn about Social Security rules called Work Incentives. Work Incentives make it easier for adults with disabilities to enhance their job skills and gain work experience while receiving health care and some Social Security cash benefits. She was particularly relieved to learn that after she is employed, her Medicaid coverage could continue, even if her earnings from work became too high for an SSI cash payment. This Work Incentive, known as “Medicaid While Working” (or 1619b) allowed Andraéa to focuson pursuing employment without worrying about losing her healthcare coverage. There are many different Work Incentives available to help people go to work. As each individual’s circumstances are different, job-seekers are encouraged to consult a benefits counselor to explore Work Incentives.
Pathway to a bright future
With help from her state VR agency in 2007, Andraéa began her career as a Youth Development Specialist at AmeriCorps, where she helped young people explore career options and improve their pathways to opportunity. While she developed skills in career counseling, Andraéa replaced her SSI payments with a much larger paycheck. By 2011, she had developed a talent for inspiring others and went to work for GSCNC as an Inclusion Specialist.
Mentoring Builds a Foundation for Success
Research on positive youth development programs has long demonstrated that youth benefit from close, caring relationships with adults who serve as positive role models. Today, millions continue to lack supportive, sustained relationships with caring adults. Mentoring—which matches youth or “mentees” with responsible, caring “mentors” usually adults—has been growing in popularity as both a prevention and intervention strategy over the past decades. Mentoring relationships can be formal or informal, but the essential components include creating caring, empathetic, consistent and long- lasting relationships, often with some combination of role modeling, teaching and advising.
Youth Programs Resource: The Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs (IWGYP) is composed of representatives from 18 federal agencies that support programs and services focusing on youth. Social Security is part of this collaborative, which promotes positive, healthy outcomes for youth. A variety of support resources, including mentoring programs for youth, can be found online at FindYouthInfo.gov.
Work Incentive Spotlight: The Student Earned Income Exclusion
Andraéa first worked with her state VR agency when she finished high school, and learned she was eligible for a Social Security Work Incentive called the Student Earned Income Exclusion (SEIE). This rule allows employed SSI recipients who are regularly attending school to earn up to $1,730 per month (a maximum of $6,960 per year in 2013) that will not be counted as earnings when Social Security determines the SSI cash benefit. VR helped Andraéa find the resources to pay for part of her college tuition, textbooks, and a personal care attendant as well.
For more information about the SEIE and other Work Incentives, consult a benefits counselor. You can also read The Redbook, Social Security’s Guide to Work Incentives at www.socialsecurity.gov/redbook.
Find Benefits Counseling Help
Benefits counselors (also known as benefits advisors) are professionals who can explain what employment would mean for your Social Security benefits. Some professionals who have completed Social Security-sponsored training that qualifies them to offer benefits counseling are known as “Community Work Incentives Coordinators” (or CWICs). Community based organizations known as “Work Incentives Planning and Assistance projects” (WIPA) have CWICs on staff that can help you make informed decisions about employment. Some ENs also have CWICs on staff.
To find a provider that offers benefits counseling, use the “Find Help” tool. Use the filtering features to pinpoint services tailored to you. Once you search by your ZIP or state, select “Work Incentives Counseling” on the services menu to filter your search. All WIPA projects offer benefits counseling, but not all ENs have benefits advisors on staff. You can find those that do by filtering by “Has Benefits Counselor on staff.”
“Work has given me confidence and a way to follow my own passion. I enjoy helping young people develop the building blocks needed for a bright future, and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished!”
Ticket to Work and Work Incentives helped Andraéa find her path to a better future. Find yours. To learn more, call the Ticket to Work Help Line at 1-866-968-7842 (V) or 866-833-2967 (TTY).