New Youth Advisory Council for Teens and Young Adults With Special Healthcare Needs

March 27th, 2024

A diverse group of four students, including a young woman in a wheelchair, gathered in a college library and enjoying discussion

An opportunity for youth to help improve transition support and make a difference!

Youth with special healthcare needs should have a big role in shaping their future and helping improve support for others.

We want to hear from teens and young adults about what’s important and helpful to them as they plan for the future. Our new Youth Advisory Council is a great opportunity for them to share their input and make a difference.

The Youth Advisory Council (YAC) is a diverse, youth-driven group that aims to develop more youth-focused ways to help individuals and families with transition planning, resources and services.

The YAC’s goal is to support positive outcomes in adulthood for all Illinois youth with special healthcare needs in the areas of:

  • Employment
  • Health care
  • Independence
  • Quality of life

The YAC’s role is to:

  • Bring a different and personal perspective on issues important to youth.
  • Partner with the Division of Specialized Care for Children (DSCC) to help develop more youth-focused methods to enhance care coordination.
  • Develop strategies to improve communication between youth/young adults and older adults.

Members participate in four virtual meetings per year.

Who is Eligible to Join the YAC?

The YAC is open to youth with special healthcare needs who are:

  • Ages 15 to 24
  • Living in Illinois
  • Planning for the transition to adulthood in the areas of education, health care, employment and home and community-based support

Youth do not have to be a DSCC participant to join the council.

How to Join and Learn More

Members must complete an online application to join. (The application is also available in Spanish.)

Visit our Youth Advisory Council page for more information and answers to frequently asked questions.

You can also see the YAC flyer for more details:

If you have questions, please contact Claire Cook, DSCC’s Title V Program Transition Specialist, at clairer3@uic.edu or (800) 322-3722, ext. 1812.

2024 Health Insurance Education Webinar Series for Families Kicks Off in March

February 21st, 2024

On the left is a dark blue box with rounded corners with white text that says: Health Insurance Education Series. DSCC's logo is below it. In the upper right and going down the page is a cup of coffee, part of a keyboard and a bright gold pen.

Free virtual training sessions for Division of Specialized Care for Children participants, their families and anyone interested in learning more about health insurance topics

Is figuring out your health insurance leaving you confused, frustrated or both?

Change your confusion to confidence with the University of Illinois Chicago’s Division of Specialized Care for Children (DSCC) Health Insurance Education Series.

These free trainings can help you better navigate your health insurance coverage and benefits. Each month, DSCC team members and other presenters will explain a different topic.

Each presentation will be in English. A Spanish interpretation line will be available during each session.

Check out the topics, mark your calendars and register for each session you’re interested in attending.

The session descriptions are in English followed by Spanish:

  • Social Security Benefits, March 12 at 6 p.m.
    • This training will help you understand Social Security benefits. Presenters from the Social Security Administration will share information about Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance. You will learn who can get benefits and how to apply for benefits. It will also cover what the Social Security program benefits are and how to keep your benefits.
    • See the Social Security flyer for more details.
    • Register on Zoom for Social Security Benefits
  • Medicaid Denials, April 9 at 6 p.m.
    • This training will help you understand Medicaid denials. It will review the common reasons that Medicaid denies services, such as equipment. The presentation will also share tips on how to avoid denials and what to do if Medicaid denies your services. This training will be for those with regular Medicaid and those enrolled in a managed care plan (MCO).
    • See the Medicaid Denials flyer for more details.
    • Register on Zoom for Medicaid Denials
  • Beneficios de Seguro Social, 12 de marzo a las 6 p.m.
    • Esta capacitación lo ayudará a entender los beneficios del Seguro Social. Los presentadores de la Administración del Seguro Social compartirán información sobre el Seguro de Ingreso Suplementario y el Seguro de Incapacidad del Seguro Social. Aprenderá quién puede obtener beneficios y cómo solicitarlos. También cubrirá cuáles son los beneficios del programa de Seguro Social y cómo conservar sus beneficios.
    • Consulte el folleto de Beneficios de Seguro Social para obtener más detalles.
    • Enlace para registrarse
  • Negaciones de Medicaid, 9 de abril a las 6 p.m.
    • Esta capacitación lo ayudará a comprender las negaciones de Medicaid. Revisará las razones comunes por las que Medicaid niega servicios, como equipos. La presentación también compartirá consejos sobre cómo evitar negaciones y qué hacer si Medicaid niega sus servicios. Esta capacitación será para quienes tienen Medicaid regular y quienes están inscritos en un plan de atención administrada (MCO).
    • Consulte el folleto de Negaciones de Medicaid para obtener más detalles.
    • Enlace para registrarse
  • Transición de los beneficios del seguro médico a la edad adulta, 14 de mayo a las 6 p.m.

You can also download a flyer with all the Health Insurance Education Series topics and registration links. (The flyer is also available in Spanish.)

The webinars are open to DSCC participants, their family members and anyone interested in these topics.

This is the second year for the DSCC Health Insurance Education Series. It began in response to DSCC families’ questions and suggestions from our Family Advisory Council.

Details about each series session are also posted on our Events page.

The 2024 Health Insurance Education Series is free for all attendees.

If you miss a session, you can access the recordings and related materials on our Family Education Webinars page.

If you have questions about these webinars before or after a session, email dscc@uic.edu or call (800) 322-3722.

We look forward to seeing you online!

Project to Improve Mental Health Support Benefits DSCC Teens

January 5th, 2024

DSCC participant Lily Kohtz and her mother, JoAnn Watkins enjoyed attending the 2023 Statewide Transition Conference.

The B.E.S.T. study looks at how care coordination services that include mental health support can help teens with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The teenage years can be a challenging time for all teens, including teens with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).

Is your teen or young adult feeling sad, stressed or overwhelmed?

Consider joining the B.E.S.T. study. B.E.S.T. stands for Behavioral Health Stratified Treatment (B.E.S.T.) to Optimize Transition to Adulthood for Youth with IDD. 

The B.E.S.T. study wants to know if care coordination services combined with mental health programming can help teens with IDD live happier and healthier lives. 

All Division of Specialized Care for Children (DSCC) participants receive care coordination services. B.E.S.T. study participants receive access to additional behavioral and mental health resources and support.

DSCC participant Lily Kohtz, 19, (pictured on the left in the above photo) says her mental health has improved since taking part in the B.E.S.T. study.

Lily has spina bifida, uses a wheelchair and has difficulty with anxiety and depression due to her disabilities.

“I think a lot of people don’t connect anxiety or depression to having a disability,” she said. “The B.E.S.T. study has helped me talk about these things. We all have bad days, but depression is worse. Understanding how disability and mental health are tied together and having strategies to use to help me cope has really helped me.”

Lily says she’s enjoyed the online group sessions, where she now meets monthly with four other teens and a group leader. All meetings are confidential. 

“We go over coping strategies such as controlling your thoughts and getting rid of the negative. I frequently use the skills we’ve learned and feel like my mental health has improved,” she said. 

Lily’s mom, JoAnn Watkins (pictured on the right in the above photo), agrees that the study has benefitted Lily in many ways.   

“I’ve seen a positive difference in Lily since she started with the B.E.S.T study. She’s using the skills she’s learned, and you can really see the improvement in her attitude and overall mental health.”

The study began recruiting participants in late 2022. More than 250 DSCC participant families have enrolled in the study so far. 

Eligible DSCC participants must be enrolled in DSCC’s Core Program or Connect Care Program. (Please note that DSCC teens enrolled in the Home Care Program are not eligible to participate.)

The B.E.S.T. study is a free and voluntary project. Teens can join the study if:

  • They currently have a DSCC Care Coordinator and are enrolled in DSCC’s Core or Connect Care programs.
  • They are between 13 and 20 years old.
  • They have an intellectual or developmental disability.
  • They can comprehend at a fourth-grade or similar level.
  • They can read and speak English.
  • They have a computer, tablet or smartphone they can use to access the internet.
  • They have permission from their parent, caregiver or guardian (if they are under 18).

The B.E.S.T. study team developed the project with input from a group of B.E.S.T. Study Scholars. These scholars are teenagers with IDD who tested and reviewed all of the B.E.S.T. study materials.

Teens who join the study are put into one of two groups:

  • Group A receives care coordination services as usual from their DSCC Care Coordinator.
  • Group B receives care coordination services and mental health support from the B.E.S.T. team. This support is based on each teen’s needs and can include:
    • Mental health education
    • Online group sessions
    • Caregiver education and support

The study is a virtual program that will continue recruiting through December 2025.

The B.E.S.T. study is a partnership between DSCC and the University of Illinois Hospital and Health Sciences System (UI Health), the University of Illinois Chicago’s (UIC) Department of Disability and Human Development and the UIC Department of Pediatrics.

The principal investigators are Dr. Benjamin Van Voorhees and Dr. Kristin Berg.

The B.E.S.T. study team includes mental health professionals from Illinois, California and Massachusetts. They are all working together to find a way to promote the health and well-being of teens with IDD.

You can learn more information for both teens and parents/caregivers on the B.E.S.T. study website.

If you would like to join the study or have questions, please email the B.E.S.T. study team at beststudy@uic.edu or call (833) 732-5778.

If you choose to join, you and your family can support research that helps other teens and families.

Both parents/caregivers and teens must agree to be in the study. (Note that if a teen is their own legal guardian, they can participate alone or with a parent/caregiver if they choose.)

Those who join will be compensated for their time.

We’re excited to continue our partnership on this important research project!

Upcoming Education and Scholarship Opportunities for Young Adults with Disabilities

April 7th, 2023

diverse group of college students taking a selfie in a grassy area outdoors on a college campus

Learn more about the Illinois Community College Initiative and 2023 CSBG Scholarship Program

Finding the right programs and resources is key when planning for the future as a young adult with disabilities.

Two programs currently offer valuable education, training and scholarship opportunities for Illinois youth interested in college or joining the workforce after high school.

Illinois Community College Initiative

The Illinois Department of Human Services’ Division of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) wants to help people with disabilities in their quest for success.

The Illinois Community College Initiative provides academic and vocational training programs for eligible students with disabilities at in-state public community colleges and approved community colleges bordering the state.

People with disabilities who are eligible for the DRS vocational rehabilitation program are eligible to participate. You may complete community college coursework leading to an associate degree or to a degree, certificate or other industry-recognized credential or certificate.

DRS will help you with:

  • Tuition
  • The cost of fees, books and supplies
  • Transportation costs
  • Other eligible costs

See the Illinois Community College Initiative flyer for more details.

Spanish-speaking families can listen to the radio ad or read the ad transcript in Spanish.

Ready to get started? Contact your local DRS office using the locator tool or call (877) 581-3690. TTY and relay callers can dial 711.

2023 C.E.F.S. Economic Opportunity Corporation’s CSBG Scholarship

C.E.F.S. Economic Opportunity Corporation has a scholarship program to help students pay for college or occupational training.

The CSBG College Scholarship program provides financial help to income-eligible students living in the following counties:

  • Christian
  • Clay
  • Effingham
  • Fayette
  • Montgomery
  • Moultrie
  • Shelby

You can use the scholarship to pay for formal education or occupational training in an accredited Illinois educational institution. Training and degrees may include:

  • Associate, bachelor’s or master’s degree, post-secondary education
  • General education, short-term training (two years or less) in growth occupation skills

The CSBG scholarship is competitive and awards students based on:

  • Income
  • The interview process
  • Choosing to go into high technology areas or other growth occupations

Previous scholarship recipients can submit an application. You must be enrolled or intend to enroll as full-time students for the fall 2023 semester in an Illinois-accredited college. Full-time is 12 hours or more.

Click on the CSBG Scholarship application or get an application at your county C.E.F.S. outreach office. The application includes contact information for each local office.

You can also visit the C.E.F.S. website for more information.

You must complete your application and submit all requested documents to your local office by April 14 at 4 p.m.

All eligible candidates will have an interview in May.

Find More Transition Resources

Visit the Transition Tools section of our website to find more programs and information to help with planning and paying for college, getting a job and more.

You can browse the Transition: Education Resources and the Transition: Work Resources categories to find what you need.

Our team is also here to help partner with you and your family to help make the transition to adulthood as successful as possible.

Contact us to find out more!

Meet Medical Advisory Board Member Dr. Shubhra (Sue) Mukherjee

March 8th, 2023

Dr. Shubhra Mukherjee has a beautiful smile, brown eyes and short, dark brown hair that frames her face. She is wearing glasses. The frames are dark red and are shaped like an oval that has been slightly squared on one end. She is wearing a navy colored, sleeveless top that has a honeycomb pattern woven into the fabric

“DSCC understands the importance of supporting families and coordinating care.”

Dr. Shubhra Mukherjee, also known as Dr. Sue, is the medical director of pediatric and adolescent rehabilitation medicine at Shriners Children’s Chicago.

Mukherjee currently cares for patients up to age 22. Her background includes working with young adults with complex healthcare needs and collaborating across medical specialties to help these patients and their families connect with the care they need.

She has served on the Division of Specialized Care for Children’s (DSCC) Medical Advisory Board (MAB) for more than 16 years.

Mukherjee’s expertise in physical medicine and rehabilitation combined with a deep interest in the transition of care for children with complex healthcare needs has been a great fit.

“DSCC understands the importance of supporting families and coordinating care,” said Mukherjee. “I appreciate their statewide focus and how the MAB serves as an avenue for clinician input on what changes are needed, sharing feedback about the struggles we encounter helping patients get what they need, and working together to find solutions.”

Putting the Focus on Transition

When Mukherjee joined the board, schools were just beginning to explore the need to help students build the skills needed to transition to adulthood.

“They were looking at ways they could better prepare students to go on to jobs, college and life after high school,” Mukherjee explained. “In pediatric care, we realized that we needed to be doing the same thing for children with complex healthcare needs and their families.”

The DSCC team had the idea to increase the participation of medical professionals at the annual Illinois Statewide Transition Conference. We wanted to create a more proactive approach to helping children and their families make the transition from pediatric care to adulthood.

Mukherjee teamed up with DSCC’s former Title V Transition Specialist Darcy Contri to help put the idea into action.

“DSCC was already doing great work providing family support, tip sheets, and facilitating face-to-face conversations about transition. This was just one more piece of the puzzle,” said Mukherjee. “Darcy and I set up the first health care track for the Statewide Transition Conference with a goal of building more clinical engagement and increasing awareness and support for patients with complex health care needs and their families.”

The health care track has provided information and presentations with and for doctors and others providing complex care. According to Mukherjee, it continues to be a catalyst for building connections, sparking ideas, and inspiring healthcare professionals.

“I got to see that impact firsthand when one of our occupational therapists (OT) attended the conference with me,” Mukherjee said. “She was so moved that she became a big proponent of the OT’s role in developing and teaching adolescents skills related to health care.”

Opportunities to Collaborate

Mukherjee appreciates how the MAB fosters collaboration, networking and the development of partnerships. This work continues to create more options throughout Illinois for patients with complex care needs.

“It’s very rewarding to grow my knowledge and connect with like-minded professionals across so many different specialties,” Mukherjee said. “We’re able to share, provide feedback, and exchange ideas around removing barriers and supporting patients with complex healthcare needs at all stages.”

Mukherjee said DSCC also continues to be a major source of support for her own patients.

“Care coordination is so important for these families,” said Mukherjee. “DSCC helps them find the right care or specialist, get to appointments, and locate funding for the services they need to stay well and engage in their community. DSCC is there for the child and family.”

Mukherjee also leans on DSCC for updates and information.

“DSCC helps me keep track of program changes and learn about new services or programs that are available,” Mukherjee emphasized. “DSCC plays a vital role in sharing information and connecting the many different entities that individuals with complex needs depend on for their care.”

Awareness Brings Progress

Mukherjee said there is still a great need for education about the transition to adulthood and its importance.

“I’m glad to see the growing awareness and interest by professionals in helping youth develop the skills they need to be successful as adult users of the healthcare system,” said Mukherjee. “We are seeing more adult providers who understand the needs of young people with disabilities who are aging out of pediatric care.”

Awareness has brought progress, but challenges remain.

“Pediatric and adult care are not set up in the same way. For example, a spina bifida clinic and spinal care clinic are similar, but they are not the same. Adults with complex conditions going to a spinal care clinic may not be getting all of their needs met,” said Mukherjee. “The special pediatric clinic that addressed all their needs as a kid doesn’t exist in the adult care system.”

Mukherjee’s own focus on the transition to adulthood remains as strong as ever.

“I’ve been following some of the research initiatives at the University of Illinois Chicago. It’s exciting to see they are collecting data, exploring different aspects of complex care and its costs, and working towards building a framework that brings all the pieces together for adults with complex care needs,” she said.

“DSCC plays a vital role,” Mukherjee noted. “Sharing their information and ensuring it’s always there for the families we serve is important.”

Thank you, Dr. Sue, for your leadership to help families and professionals support the successful transition to adulthood!

Visit our Medical Advisory Board page to learn more about the MAB and its mission.

2022 Transition Conference Prepares Youth With Disabilities for Adulthood

November 28th, 2022

brothers Jaysen, 18, and Justen, 14, McMenamin smile as they sit in their power wheelchairs while attending the 2022 Illinois Statewide Transition Conference

The annual Stepping Stones of Transition Conference gives families and professionals valuable resources and information to support youth on the path to adulthood.

Sixteen-year-old Ayla Etheridge says she’s faced many surgeries and physical limitations throughout her life.

She was born with a spinal lipoma (a mass of fatty tissue) and has experienced nerve damage and scoliosis. At one point, she needed a tracheostomy to breathe.

Ayla now uses a wheelchair and credits her physical challenges with “making my brain better.”

Ayla Etheridge, 16

“I always bounce back and don’t want to just sit around and get depressed,” she said.

Ayla is also a careful planner, extremely tech-savvy and loves gaming, character design and writing.   

As she attended the Illinois Statewide Transition Conference, Ayla thought more about how these interests and skills will shape her future and career goals.

“I’m very independent and would like to do more things myself,” Ayla said. “This conference has kind of helped me visualize and think about my next steps.”

The 17th annual transition conference, titled “Stepping Stones of Transition,” took place in East Peoria on Nov. 3-4. The conference helps both families and professionals learn about the resources, information and opportunities available for youth with disabilities as they prepare for adulthood.

Ayla and her mom, Rachel, were among nearly 450 people who attended in person.

The University of Illinois Chicago’s Division of Specialized Care for Children (DSCC) helps sponsor the conference and serves on its steering committee.

DSCC also covered the related costs for 34 of our participant family members to attend, including the Etheridges and the Barraza family.

“I am so thankful to DSCC for the fact they covered the cost to be here. That made a big difference in us being able to attend,” Anita Barraza said.

“Education empowers me”

Anita’s son, Daniel, 17, is a DSCC participant. His older sister Diana, 22, left DSCC last summer.

All three attended together along with dad, Jose, and Anita’s mother-in-law, who helped care for Daniel and Diana when they needed a break from conference activities.  

“It was great to have my husband be able to be part of the process and that both he and I could listen and take in the information,” Anita said. “(The conference) is also a nice way to spend time together as a family. It’s almost like a mini-vacation for us.”

The Barraza family

Anita is an occupational therapist who works with school children, so she understands both sides of the need for information and resources when supporting young adults with disabilities.

“As a parent, we can feel so overwhelmed. Even if help is right there, that reach can be hard to do,” Anita said.

That’s why opportunities to learn about a variety of resources and network with other families and professionals are so important.

“These types of resources educate me on how to best provide for my children’s needs and for their future,” Anita said

Both Daniel and Diana have significant medical needs and are unable to safely live on their own.

Anita says it’s hard to think about, but she realizes must start planning for who can care for Daniel and Diana when she and her husband can no longer do it. Residential placement may be necessary in the future.

The Barrazas also want to learn about possible day programs that can offer one-on-one support to Diana and possible employment options that would work well with her needs.

“Education empowers me to be better prepared to help (Diana and Daniel) have a good quality of life,” Anita said.

“One step ahead”

Anita had told two other DSCC moms about the conference and encouraged them to attend. One of those moms is her friend Yessy Castillo.

Jacob Ortiz and his parents

Though Yessy’s son, Jacob Ortiz, is only 4 years old, she knew it was important to go. 

“I want to be aware of what services are available for Jacob,” Yessy said. “Most importantly, I want to be one step ahead. This conference allows me to get the information on what can benefit Jacob.”

Jacob was born with a cleft palate, an underdeveloped jaw and his tongue pushed back toward his throat. He also had malformations in his hands and feet, and his intestines did not rotate appropriately.

Jacob now has a tracheostomy and depends on a ventilator 24-7 to breathe.

“I appreciate getting the opportunity to meet people and attorneys for advice and support and more legal information on Jacob’s rights,” she said. “If I was not exposed to these events, I wouldn’t know what is available.”

While Yessy speaks limited English, she said the presentations all gave information in a way she could understand.

Melania Tinoco, who also speaks Spanish and learned about the conference from Anita, said connecting with other families at the conference helps her feel more confident.

“It helps seeing we’re all in the same boat and finding out we aren’t alone,” Melania said.

Jeny and Melania Tinoco

Her daughter Jeny is 14 and has been a DSCC participant since birth. Jeny has Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome, a rare genetic and neurological condition that causes developmental delays.

Melania said the conference has helped her plan for what happens to Jeny if she gets sick and/or can’t take care of her daughter. She also appreciated the breakout sessions on helping youth with disabilities respect their body and feel empowered to say “no.”

“The information has been helpful and inspirational,” Melania said.

Putting information into action

The conference consisted of informative breakout sessions in the areas of employment, education, health care and more.

DSCC participant Vera Lynn Lindquist, 17, and her grandmother, Cheryl Lindquist Calcese, said they enjoyed the “Awareness and Transition Services for Students with Disabilities” session. It gave them helpful information on sex education and tips for building good money management skills.

Vera Lindquist and her grandmother, Cheryl Lindquist Calcese

Cheryl is Vera’s legal guardian. She and Vera planned to start a new budget at home after the conference. Vera will get paid for doing chores, such as cleaning her room, helping with the laundry and feeding her two dogs and cat. She will also get a debit card so she can buy things and track her spending.

Vera has autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety disorder from childhood, tinnitus and hearing loss, and seizures.

She enjoys being an advocate, helping others and encouraging everyone to be kind.

During the breakout session, “Your Story Has Power: Great Expectations and Pieces of the Self-Advocacy Puzzle,” Vera stood up and actively participated during the presentation.

Vera and Cheryl hope to attend the transition conference again next year.

DSCC participant Sabrina Doueihi, 20, was among several self-advocates who shared their perspectives during the “Transition Success Stories” breakout session. She is currently a junior at Bradley College, where she is studying criminology. She hopes to go to law school and become a prosecutor.

Sabrina spoke about the importance of staying true to yourself and what you want to do. She also recommended that youth with disabilities focus on what they can do and who can help them achieve their goals.

“Trade stories and network”

For brothers Jaysen and Justen McMenamin and their parents, the transition conference was a good opportunity to plan for life after high school.

Jaysen McMenamin, 18, is a senior at Woodland High School near Streator, where he is an honor roll student and honorary captain of the school’s football team.

He says he’s interested in digital media and related job opportunities. But, he’s still deciding on the path that’s right for him after graduation.

Brothers Jaysen and Justen McMenamin

Justen, 14, is a freshman at Woodland High and interested in coding. Both brothers have Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy and are enrolled with DSCC.

Their stepfather, Charles Cusick, said the family wanted to learn more about jobs and career fields that are accessible for the boys and provide more opportunities than what’s available in their small community.

They were also seeking information about camps and other recreation programs for Jaysen now that he has aged out of other programs.

The brothers enjoyed talking with some of the vendors about college resources, job coaching and training programs, and future housing opportunities.

Jaysen would like to live on his own but needs to make sure he has the right supports in place.

The brothers’ mom, Deanna Cox, said she appreciated the breakout session on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. Jaysen and Justen’s dad passed away in June, and the session helped her better understand how to help her boys keep the benefits they’re entitled to. 

The family met up with their DSCC Care Coordinator Kristin Lenover during the conference.

“If families can get away from work, there’s so much they will get out of being at the transition conference,” Kristin said. “Attending in person gives you so much access to all kinds of information. There are also opportunities to meet other families, trade stories and network.”

Thirty DSCC team members attended the conference to network, learn from others and strengthen their skillsets and tools to serve participant families.

DSCC also sponsored the conference’s healthcare track for providers who play a role in the transition from the pediatric to adult healthcare system and those who build youth’s capacity and healthcare skills to prepare for adulthood.

DSCC Transition Specialist Darcy Contri has helped plan the conference since it began 17 years ago. This year’s event was her last before she retires.

“I’m so grateful for and have loved being part of this great work,” Darcy said. “Partnering with talented people from organizations across the state to help others has made a positive difference in so many lives. It is my hope the annual conference will continue to make an impact on improving adult outcomes for youth with disabilities for many more years.”

Visit our Facebook page to see more photos from this year’s conference.  

Transition Conference Prepares Youth With Disabilities for Adulthood

November 16th, 2021

Families and professionals came together in person and virtually at the annual Stepping Stones of Transition Conference in East Peoria to improve outcomes for transition-age youth with special needs

As a single parent raising a child with complex medical needs, Kristen Fisher says it’s easy to feel isolated.

The feeling subsided as she walked through the East Peoria Riverfront Conference Center and saw dozens of other parents and youth with similar needs.

“Seeing everyone at the conference and meeting other parents, it helps confirm that I’m not alone,” Kristen said.

The Illinois Statewide Transition Conference, titled “Stepping Stones of Transition,” returned for its 16th year on Nov. 4-5 in East Peoria after a one-year absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 660 families and professionals gathered in-person and virtually to gain skills, resources and information to help youth with disabilities prepare for adulthood.

The University of Illinois Chicago’s Division of Specialized Care for Children (DSCC) is a conference sponsor and served on its steering committee.

DSCC covered the conference-related expenses for 33 of our participant family members across the state.

A “Phenomenal” Experience

DSCC participant Connor Fisher
DSCC participant Connor Fisher

Kristen is the mother of DSCC participant Connor Fisher, who will soon turn 15 years old. He was born prematurely with profound delays and a “smile that will melt your heart,” she said.

This year’s conference was Kristen’s first and she called the experience “phenomenal.”

“It’s hard to grasp that my baby is not a baby. He’s growing up. It’s a scary transition,” she said.

Kristen particularly enjoyed the breakout session “SSI, SSDI, HFS: Understanding the Alphabet Soup of Government Benefits.” She gained a better understanding of available government benefits and how they change over the lifetime.

DSCC mom Amy also learned helpful information during the breakout session on government benefits. She said financial planning is an important part of preparing for her daughter Jaida’s future. Jaida, 17, has been a DSCC participant since just after birth.

Eighteen-year-old DSCC participant RJ Smith attended the conference with his mom, Karla. It was the first time attending for both.

DSCC participant RJ Smith and his mom, Karla
DSCC participant RJ Smith and his mom, Karla

RJ is a senior in high school who plays the baritone in his high school band. He wants to go to culinary school after graduation to become a baker.

He picked all the conference breakout sessions that he and Karla attended.

One of their favorites was about the Fast Track Transition Program through the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Division of Rehabilitation Services. The program provides pre-employment transition services to students with disabilities.

RJ said he is ready for more independence, and Karla said the session helped open her eyes to more options to help achieve that.

“I want to help him become more independent and push him toward that but not just leave him sitting the middle of the road, stranded,” Karla said.  “(The conference) overall has been helpful.”

Preparing for Life After Graduation

DSCC participant Michael Rounds and his mom, Lori
DSCC participant Michael Rounds and his mom, Lori

The conference consisted of informative breakout sessions in the areas of:

  • Employment
  • Education
  • Community
  • Health Care

DSCC participant Michael Rounds, 15, said he enjoyed the breakout session on the Culture of Coordinated Support Model. This model is where people with disabilities, families, supporters, agencies and service providers work together to develop and implement consistent support plans with unified goals and services provided by the provider best suited to do so.

Michael said the session made him think about getting more involved with his Individualized Education Program (IEP) at school. He also liked learning more about what choices are available to him as he plans for his future.

His mother, Lori, said the conference helped her know where to start in preparing Michael for life after high school graduation.

DSCC participant Jacob Menard with his mom, Rosa, and younger brother, Tyler
DSCC participant Jacob Menard with his mom, Rosa, and younger brother, Tyler

Rosa Menard, mom to 17-year-old DSCC participant Jacob, said the amount of information to soak up over the two-day conference was almost overwhelming. She took many notes about potential resources and programs to discuss during Jacob’s next IEP meeting.

Jacob is non-verbal and she wants to set him up for success after high school.

Rosa encouraged other families to start the transition planning process as soon as possible.

“Start asking those questions now,” she said.

Improving Outcomes

DSCC Transition Specialist Darcy Contri presents a conference breakout session
DSCC Transition Specialist Darcy Contri presents a conference breakout session

Nearly 40 DSCC staff members attended the conference in-person or virtually to network, learn from others and strengthen their skillsets and tools to serve our families.

DSCC also sponsored the conference’s health care track for providers who play a role in the transition from the pediatric to adult healthcare system and those who build youth’s capacity and healthcare skills to prepare for adulthood.

DSCC Transition Specialist Darcy Contri said attending providers found helpful tips and information they will apply in their own practices and interactions with youth and families. These changes include:

  • Starting the transition planning process sooner with patients and families
  • Making sure the youth and their family are included in all decision-making and planning
  • Keeping a holistic view of the patient and noting environmental barriers for their family
  • Emphasizing self-determination when working with youth and families on transition goals
  • Discussion of self-management strategies with youth and families

Darcy has been involved with planning the conference for the last 16 years.

“Every year it has been exciting to see the positive impact the transition conference has on improving outcomes for Illinois transition-age youth and their families,” she said.

Visit our Facebook page to see more photos from this year’s conference.