Apr 15, 2014 0 Share

Off and Running

Illustration of man running with money symbols behind him.

I was recently asked to host a fundraiser for a nonprofit organization that provides employment services for adults with mental illness, addiction or autism. I had never heard of the group, yet they are more than 50 years old and have offices and a campus less than five miles from my home in Northern Virginia.

I did some research and agreed to host the Kentucky Derby-themed fundraiser on May 3, not coincidentally Kentucky Derby Day. But I wanted to get a better idea of what they do, so I accepted an invitation to tour the campus and talk with the staff.

Psychiatric Rehabilitative Services (PRS) started in 1963 in the basement of a church, providing social services to about a dozen recently discharged patients with mental illness. It now serves more than 900 clients living with a variety of diagnoses, offering an array of training and support services designed to help clients find and keep employment and independent living arrangements. Funding comes from government, foundation and corporate grants, and private donations. Some services have been paid for by Social Security benefits of individual clients, though tightening eligibility requirements are changing that. PRS is stepping up private fundraising to make up some of the lost funding, and some clients privately pay for their services. Hence, the Derby fundraiser.

Increasingly those clients are on the autism spectrum. A few years ago, staff members said, they were seeing a spike in the number of ASD client referrals. The needs of the autism community were similar, yet somewhat different, from those of clients with mental illness or addictions. So PRS added autism expertise to its staff. Last year, almost a quarter of PRS clients were on the spectrum. PRS has been told to brace for significant increases in the number of adults with ASD needing services in the coming years. If most people on the spectrum are under 18, and the numbers are still increasing (one in 68 children, according to the latest CDC reports), that explosion is coming, and not too far off. And there aren’t many, or at least not enough, agencies like PRS gearing up for the onslaught.

Wendy Gradison, PRS CEO, said she believes her company is the only non-profit in Virginia offering the kind of comprehensive supports that PRS provides. While clientele is growing, public funding sources are declining. With growing numbers of kids on the spectrum graduating from high school, “we don’t want them graduating to the couch,” Gradison said. While PRS doesn’t do specific job training, they help young adults with a “person-centered care model” that plays to their individual skills and abilities and challenges. They train clients in the skills needed to apply and interview for jobs, and they follow up with behavioral supports to help adults with autism maintain employment. The goal isn’t sheltered-workshop jobs, but competitive employment in local businesses and full participation in the community.

Intensive personalized services also include help finding housing in the community and developing the skills needed for independent living, like grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning.

In 2010, PRS launched a Recovery Academy on two campuses in Northern Virginia, offering a curriculum-based day program to help clients move into jobs, volunteering or higher education. Classes range from computer skills to yoga. There is an emphasis on health and well-being. Thanks to a community donation, the campus has a new work-out room with cardio and weight-training equipment. The Academy’s restaurant management students operate a commercial-grade kitchen, serving lunch five days a week.

PRS boasts that 67 percent of its employment services clients were actively employed last year, more than twice the national average for the populations it serves. And 89 percent were employed for at least 12 months. All of the clients in the community supports and housing services maintained their housing and avoided eviction in the most recent reporting year. And PRS has been named one of the 50 best non-profits to work for in the U.S.

That’s a lot of success. PRS is on a winning streak, you might say. But they’re in it for the long haul, and the race is getting increasingly challenging.

I’m donning my Derby hat to help PRS get its clients over the finish line! (Feel free to groan at the tortured horserace metaphor). We just need to clone them. One in 68 kids is on the spectrum now.