- Associated Press - Saturday, February 11, 2017

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) - Caty Madison finds great enjoyment volunteering at Southern Pines Animal Shelter once a week. Madison, 26, has a disability, and she heads to the shelter as part of her involvement with the University of Southern Mississippi’s Step Up to Leadership Council.

“I just like to go see all the dogs and get them out of their cages and walk them around and get them fresh air,” Madison said.

Group member Taylor Carley, 23, said students and non-students, with and without disabilities, are part of the organization. Working with them has changed his world.

“When I came to Step Up, they gave me opportunities, and it opened the door,” he said. “I thought if I can do this, what else can I do?”

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Carley, who also has a disability, is now employed as a self-advocacy coordinator with the university’s Institute for Disability Studies, where the Step Up to Leadership Council is based. In addition to his work duties, he helps with council meetings, where students and members decide what activities they’ll participate in each month.

Members will soon be holding meetings with a new group of young people - those involved with Mayor Johnny DuPree’s Youth Leadership Council, which targets diverse high school-aged Hattiesburg youth.

The two organizations are getting together as part of a new $40,000 planning grant. Beth Bryant, executive director of the Institute for Disability Studies, received the grant from the Administration for Community Living at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“We feel like (the groups) have similar goals,” Bryant said. “We’re looking at having them work together. It gives us an opportunity to see how that partnership informs us and them.

“Tossing the two councils together would give us a broader view of the transition age - youth and young adults.”

The Step Up to Leadership Council is a program that helps youth with and without disabilities transition to adulthood through recreational activities and service projects. The Mayor’s Youth Leadership Council focuses on racially, ethnically and economically diverse high school students in the city to help them with leadership skills.

“The first goal is to combine the activities of the Step Up to Leadership Council with the Mayor’s Youth Leadership Council to have them spend time together to see how each of the memberships perceive the (other’s) diversity,” Bryant said. “We plan joint service projects and leisure- and recreational-type projects.”

Bryant said the second goal of the year-long grant is to help young adults with the transition to adulthood and determine how they need assistance doing that.

“We don’t necessarily have a great system of what do we do to help youth make this leap to adulthood,” she said. “It’s even more complicated when you have racial/ethnic diversity, socio-economic diversity or have a disability or a learning disability.

“We want to do a needs assessment and find out, what are the resources in our locale to help young adults transition and what do parents, stakeholders and youth/young adults think the needs are?”

Bryant said focus groups and community forums would aid in pinning down what those necessities were.

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The third phase of the grant would be to develop a culturally appropriate training program to help youth and young adults with their needs, which might be such things as writing a resume or filling out a college application.

“That’s focused on things that youth/young adults need to transition to adulthood - skills that we don’t necessarily learn in school but are great to have,” Bryant said.

The actual training would take place further down the road, she said, perhaps under the auspices of another grant.

“This grant presents an opportunity to give all young adults a voice and to learn if the current resources and services offered within the community have proven beneficial to them, as well as gain feedback from them on the type of services they would like to see in the future,” DuPree said in a news release. “It affords us a chance to provide leadership training and promote civic engagement to help youth understand the responsibilities of adulthood and become confident adults and leaders within the community.”

For people like Hunter Bullen, 23, the collaboration between the two groups will give them more chances to grow.

“(Step Up) has helped me talk more, get to know people,” he said. “I’m getting there - doing more service and trying to connect with more people.”

___

Information from: The Hattiesburg American, https://www.hattiesburgamerican.com


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