Nature a great teacher for those with developmental disabilities


The civil rights of young adults with developmental disabilities who have aged out of the public school system have largely been ignored.

In South Florida, the unemployment rate among this population of young adults is higher than 75 percent. In addition, tens of thousands across the state are stuck having to choose between highly focused, state-funded job-training programs through Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) — for which many young adults are not prepared — and adult daycare training facilities (ADT/AWD) designed to support adults with more severe disabilities.

Few state or local resources and programs focus on young adults in the middle, not ready for the job market without further preparation through continuing education highlighting soft skills and independent living.

To add to the problem, the numbers of this overlooked group are not even adequately counted because the U.S. Census stopped asking questions about disability after the 2000 Census, resulting in a significant undercount that translates into a lack of financial resources.

Yet, these young people possess a multitude of abilities and largely unrealized potential. We in South Florida can show the way in promoting creative new programs and focusing greater attention on parental information and targeted outreach to underserved communities.

I know because I have learned much on behalf of, and with, my own daughter and through the programs I’ve developed with many others, starting in 2007 with Shake-a-Leg (now called Project Bridge focusing on 18-22 year olds with Miami-Dade County Public Schools) and, for the past six years, with Nature Links for Lifelong Learning.

Nature Links became a 501c3 nonprofit in 2013 and addresses the needs of young adults, 18-30 years old, with mid- to higher-range intellectual disabilities through a holistic approach. We listen to our students and fill the neglected space for their growth after they age out of the school system at age 22. We empower them as more fully functioning members of the community rather than categorizing them, simplistically, as low-skill workers.

We engage our students in art and communication projects, travel training and conservation and habitat restoration, creating community gardens, developing cooking skills and healthy diets and a lot more. Our session themes, such as “The Water Around Us,” “The Future of Food,” “Land Over Time” and “Community Wellness,” use South Florida’s environment as a learning laboratory.

We have achieved success through a variety of partnerships including with the Frost Museum, the city of Miami, Miami-Dade County, Pinecrest Gardens and Coral Gables Congregational Church. Our students have attended presentations from experts including planner Victor Dover, Wendy Wolf from Vizcaya, and Everglades expert Carmen Ferreira. They are learning to create videos and short films from noted videographer and University of Miami Prof. Sanjeev Chatterjee in order to videotape speakers and trips. They are collaborating with local media outlets to produce Nature Links News segments to share their unique perspectives with the community.

Our students show the world how productive they can be and how we can all be changed by their example of health, work, and community service.

During the school year, we have three programs held throughout the week in donated locations: Urban Explorers, based at the old Frost Museum of Science, Culinary Foundations, housed at the Coral Gables Congregational Church, and our Environmental Teamwork and Wildlife Education Program located at the city of Miami’s Simpson Park and expanding into South Dade. We are currently conducting our summer sessions, entitled “Whole Earth.”

Nature Links has been a creative, bare-bones effort so far, but we have made a funding request to the state Legislature and are seeking greater support from donors, foundations, local and county governments and other institutions in order to expand our support for this underserved population. Our holistic model of education, which encompasses the natural world and critical soft skills, can be widely replicated around the state and beyond — reinforcing healthy values from which so many have long been estranged.

Gregory Bush is a University of Miami history professor and president of Nature Links.