Unable to meet in person, nonprofit creates online hub for students with disabilities

Pandemic forces Oahu nonprofit to change how it conducts popular program for people with disabilities

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Before COVID-19 came into the picture, Abilities Unlimited’s summer pre-employment classes were held in classrooms full of high school students with disabilities.

This summer, the non-profit switched to a virtual classroom.

"With COVID-19 it's a little bit different this year," program director Melissa Gerber said.

Abilities' summer session helps the students prepare for the working world.

"We have an internship program also where it is a paid internship, and they are able to get some experience and explore what they want to do for a career," Gerber said.

The pandemic forced Abilities to create smaller online classes where everyone is in their own space.

"I feel like it fosters an ability to really open up with the students and for the students to open up with me as we explore together this new landscape," teacher Kayla Young said.

Sessions cover job searches to job interviews.

"I want to work at a tourist attraction called Dole Plantation. I will work hopefully as the train driver, the train conductor in the platform," student George Warnock said.

Ten students are in each class.

"I do have dreams and goals that I want to accomplish. The main dream I want to do is I want to be a music artist," student Aidan Shimizu said.

Abilities also placed students as interns with organizations that lost volunteers because of COVID-19 concerns, like the Institute for Human Services.

Interns are put to work in different IHS departments from food preparation to donation sorting to gardening in the rooftop garden.

Intern Will Sato is putting his photography skills to work.

"I want to be a professional photographer or a videographer, making videos and photos," he said.

Next week, Abilities will have guest speakers join its online class.

"We're going to have some employers come in. We're going to have some past students who are now successfully working," Gerber said.

The non-profit calls the virtual option a great tool it plans to continue using.

“I’m not thankful for COVID but there is a silver lining sometimes, and this is our silver lining,” Gerber said.

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