Jazmique Gore, Kenny Heards and Natalie Kuban. Youth employed through the Career Transition Project. Photo courtesy of The United Way of Allegheny County.

According to the U.S. Census, one in five have a disability in the United States and according to the Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for those with disabilities is more than double that of the national rate at 12.3%.

Career Transition Project, a program of the United Way of Allegheny County’s 21 and Able program, seeks to change that.

The Career Transition Project was launched as a pilot program in September 2013 by United Way in partnership with Allegheny County, Giant Eagle, Inc. and Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh. It is an innovative employment and training initiative that helps young people with disabilities secure work experience and paying jobs as they transition out of high school.

In March 2014, the “Final Rule” of Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was enacted, requiring “all companies with federal contracts and any company that has a business relationship with a company that gets money from the federal government, to strive for a workforce which is at least 7% made up of people with disabilities,” according to a Forbes article.

There is a long road ahead for work in this area in Allegheny County. There are approximately 1,000 young adults with disabilities that graduate from high school each year in Allegheny County and according to Heather Sedlacko, director at the United Way of Allegheny County, “Forty percent of young adults ages 20 to 24 with disabilities in the County are neither in school or working.”

The Career Transition pilot program originally launched at Giant Eagle with a goal to employ 24 students during the two-year pilot. During that time, 40 youths have been employed by Giant Eagle, and 200 young people with disabilities have received job search assistance.

The project has benefited Giant Eagle in many ways. “The Career Transition Project has had an extremely positive impact on Giant Eagle and the communities it serves,” says Jeremy Shapira, senior director of Human Resources. “The youths with disabilities hired through the project are learning invaluable life skills in addition to the tangible job skills they learn in their new roles.”

Shapira adds that the project benefits not only disabled youth but all team members. “Our current team members also benefit from working in a richer and more diverse workplace.”

Kenny Heards, 17, a senior in high school, is a participant in the program and has been working the front end of the Giant Eagle at the Waterfront since March. “This job is the hardest best thing I ever did in my life but working with customers is stretching me to be a better person.”

He finds the work rewarding. “I like to make people laugh, especially people who look like they’re having a bad day. I try to at least smile at every customer before they leave. I get compliments from customers every day. One lady said she’d pay just to look at my smile.”

What would Kenny say if his friends were considering the program? “Hop on it. It’s a wonderful thing.”

Leah Lizarondo is a food advocate, writer and speaker. She is also the co-founder of 412 Food Rescue, an organization that seeks to eliminate food waste to make an impact on hunger and the environment. She is the Chief Veghacker, recipe creator and curator at The Brazen Kitchen, where she writes about food and food policy. She writes about the intersection of food, health, innovation and policy.