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May 1, 2024

Welcome to VRTAC-QM Manager Minute! Today, we're joined by Brandy McOmber, Project Director, Ashley Banes, Counselor Specialist, and Paul Fuller, Counselor Specialist, all representing Iowa General.

Our focus is Iowa's Blueprint for Change DIF Grant and its creative use of the collective impact approach. This initiative aims to amplify opportunities for competitive integrated employment through strategic partnerships and pilot programs. Its overarching mission? To phase out sub-minimum wage employment in Iowa and revolutionize the career paths of individuals considering such options.

As 14(C) certificate holders decline, many individuals find themselves without employment, often spending their days at home or in day habilitation programs. Stay tuned to learn more about how they're transforming lives with DIF!


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Full Transcript:




Brandy: Making sure that we have a focus across the state, that competitive integrated employment is the first and preferred outcome for all individuals with disabilities.


Paul: We want to partner with the CRPs, the school districts, mental health providers, and we want to be able to provide customized employment or ISPY at a much younger age in the high school.


Ashley: Our work group has looked at the direct support professional registered apprenticeship that already exists in the state of Iowa, and that's registered, and we're looking at what can we take from that and really kind of DIF it.


Paul: We're DIF'ing it.


Brandy: who wants to dive in with us and DIF it?


Intro Voice: Manager Minute brought to you by the VRTAC for Quality Management, Conversations powered by VR, one manager at a time, one minute at a time. Here is your host Carol Pankow.


Carol: Well welcome to the manager minute. Joining me in the studio today is Brandi McOmber project director Ashley Banes, counselor specialist, focused on the apprenticeship program, and Paul Fuller, counselor specialist focused on the transition pilot all with Iowa general. So hey, gang, thanks for joining me in the studio today. So a little background for our listeners. I heard this group talk about their DIF project in a recent CSAVR monthly directors meeting, and they were focused on one aspect of the grant that was centered around the IPS project. And in fact, I thought maybe that was the whole thing. And shoot, CSAVR already stole them and stole my thunder. But I learned from talking to the team that there was so much more to their grant to unpack. So we are actually going to not focus on IPS, and we're going to pick up where they left off. Now, I've really enjoyed focusing on the DIF projects from each grant year, and they each have such a unique emphasis, and the ideas that are generated from one state can really be transplanted across the country. So as a reminder to our listeners, this DIF grant series is called the SWTCIE Subminimum Wage to Competitive Integrated Employment. And the purpose of this round of grants is to increase the opportunity for those SWTCIE program participants, which includes students and youth with disabilities seeking subminimum wage employment and potential VR program applicants, or VR eligible individuals with disabilities who are employed or contemplating employment at sub minimum wage to obtain competitive, integrated employment. All right, that was a mouthful. So let's dig in. Now I know our listeners are always super interested about your backgrounds. Like how do people get into VR? How do you even get here? So I'd like to understand each of your journeys into getting into VR. So, Brandy I'm going to start with you.


Brandy: Sure, thanks, Carol. To start out, I've worked with vocational rehabilitation services for 16 years now. Originally, I became interested in VR, as I previously worked at a facility with Transition Youth who were adjudicated as delinquent or CHINA or in other words, Child In Need of Assistance. So these were youth that had, you know, a lot of things to overcome in terms of transitioning into the world of work. So my specific role there was to help them come up with a plan. So in other words, where are they going to work? Where are they going to move out as they age out of the system? And through that process, I was able to interact with vocational rehabilitation in the state of Iowa. And it really got me interested in how much more of an impact I could have. So I applied and they accepted me. And then when I became a VR counselor, I really got interested in the other components of the broader state level work and applied and became a policy resource manager. And that gave me a much broader understanding of where we're at in the system, uniquely as a VR entity. With that coming into the DIF grant that we'll talk about today, it was really kind of the next level or the next step in the journey of moving from just our internal policy to how we can affect systems change throughout the state of Iowa. So that's really kind of my background.


Carol: That's excellent. And that really positioned you well for being project director on this DIF. Very cool. So Ashley, let's go to you. How did you meander into VR.


Ashley: Absolutely. And I think meandering is a great way of honestly describing it. I have worked within the state for about 14 years now, but I actually started within the Department of Corrections, and I hung out there for the first ten years of my career. Within that, the first six years, I ran our domestic violence program and carried a caseload of about 1000 clients when I did that. And the last four years that I was there, I really started focusing on mental health barriers, substance abuse barriers. And so that led me into a very specific program, which was our drug court program, and that is a prison diversion program. So that is the last stop somebody can kind of redeem themselves in before they get sent to prison. And the reason is I got super interested in that. My passion comes from actually very personal experience. And I lost my mom to suicide when I was 18 due to her severe mental health. So when that happened, that really left me asking questions of what supports are out there. And that really opened my eyes to see the lack of said supports in our community and in our state. So I hung out with in drug court for about four years, ran that program, and I started wanting to branch out because I was helping this certain population. And I was like, I know there's more out there. I know that I could be doing more. And I just felt like I was needed in more places. So a Voc Rehab counselor position opened and, the same county actually that I was running our drug court program in so I took a shot and applied for that and was offered that position. And so I jumped on that, I was  a Voc Rehab counselor, just carrying a normal caseload. for about a year, just over a year, and within that year is where I got into the IPS program that you touched on earlier that we already kind of talked about in our monthly meeting that we had. From there, the DIF grant counselor specialist position came up and I was like, this is really a way for me to take what I'm good at and the areas that I don't have a lot of experience in, like for example, being part of a grant was not anything I'd ever done in my life before, but I really wanted to have that experience. So I was like, this is my shot. So I applied for it and I honestly thought in my interview I was like, there's no way I got this. There's no way this is the worst interview of my life. And lo and behold, I got offered the position. So that's really kind of what got me in here. And being able to be kind of part of that top level systems change and being able to provide that support to my coworkers who are struggling with certain areas, that's really what drives me, and being able to take my passion and apply that. So that's how I meandered in here.


Carol: Well, first up, I'm very sorry about your mom.


Ashley: Thank you.


Carol:  In that situation, your background, I can imagine they snatched you up in one second because your background is so uniquely important to VR and having the mental health challenges that many of our customers face, that's been tough for counselors to handle and to work with. So I can see why you've been a valuable add to the team for sure. So, Paul, last but not least, how did you come into VR?


Paul: Meandering might be a good way to say it too, but my passion and my background here really lies in transition. And so I started my transition journey, I guess, in the Waterloo Community Schools here, the local school district, and I worked with individuals with disabilities in a transition program that partnered with Voc Rehab. And so I had 4 or 5 years of experience and then decided to apply. Then with VOC Rehab when a counselor position came open. That's been about ten and a half years ago. Best move I ever made. Love working with Iowa Voc Rehab. My coworkers here and everybody we get to help. So over those ten years, over the past ten years, I actually oversaw two transition programs in the local community where we assisted individuals with disabilities all the way from freshman through their transition into adulthood, all the way up to age 25. That was really interesting and fulfilling to me to see the growth that you would get from students and that you would see them obtain their goals and really achieve milestones for themselves that that were just amazing, watching them grow and learn and become adults, so to speak. And then, like Ashley, I saw the position with the DIF grant come open. Did not think I was going to get it after my interview. You know, those are the type of interviews that you end up getting the job when you think you bombed. But very fortunate to be here, part of a great team. Yeah, about 17 years total in transition, a little over ten here with Voc Rehab. And really looking forward to the things that we have going for us for the DIF grant.


Carol: That's good stuff. I always love understanding how people get into VR, because we often come from a very different journey and then evolve and come into this role. I can see why all three of you are on this grant. That is amazing. Brandy, can you give people a little picture of Iowa General? Like kind of how many staff are in the agency? How many people do you serve? I know Iowa is my neighbor, but I always think of, you know, a lot of cornfields, are there, any big metro areas? What's the lay of the land down there?


Brandy: Iowa, we currently have approximately 250 staff within VR. So decent size, but definitely a lot smaller than, you know, some of our bigger states like Texas, we are obviously a separated state. So we have Iowa General, and then the Iowa Department for the Blind, and we work closely with them in partnership. We do have some metro areas that are around the state, like Des Moines is one of our major metro areas. We also then have very rural areas where we see major needs in terms of a lack of transportation of available providers. So it's really interesting in that, you know, it sounds like it's all rural, but we definitely have a really good mixture of those different urban versus rural areas, which is interesting, but also was perfect for a grant because we can take a look at how we're affecting change in those major areas, and really understanding that we need to have a different approach for different areas in the state of Iowa and in terms of individuals, we serve for Iowa general alone in program year 2022, which would be July 1st, 2022 through June 30th, 2023. We served approximately 7900 potentially eligible students, as well as about 13 almost 14,000 eligible clients, for a total of almost 22,000. So decent numbers, but once again, definitely not as broad as some areas. For transition alone, we served around 14,000, a little over that, which would be a combination of that almost 8000 potentially eligible and, you know, 6500 eligible transition students. So we have a decent amount of clients that we serve. And we're very focused on transition in the state of Iowa. So we like to really push different transition programs. As Paul had mentioned, we have a lot of what we call TAP programs, Transition Alliance Programs that we've spoken nationally about as well, but definitely an emphasis on transition as well. So that's kind of the makeup of our state.


Carol: I like it, it's bigger than I thought. I didn't realize that. So that is good. I know when I was reading your project narrative and you had sent that, now that I know you wrote it in six weeks or less, Holy smokes, it was really good and I can totally see why RSA said, yeah, we're funding this project really well written. And you titled it The Iowa Blueprint for Change. And I was very intrigued by all of the research. You looked at a report that the US Government Accountability Office did, or they often are known as the GAO, and they had written a report back in 21 and submitted it to Congress about the 14(C) programs. I thought that was interesting. And you also had another report that was by the Advisory Committee on Increasing Competitive Integrated Employment. So you wove in these pieces to kind of lay the picture of what was happening in Iowa and how that aligned. Can you talk a little bit about that? Because I think it's interesting to note what your state is facing regarding sub minimum wage and kind of the lay of the land. We know over the course of many years across the country, some states have now kind of banned sub-minimum wage. And other people, they're all in different places on that. So can you kind of weave that together a little bit?


Brandy: Absolutely. I would preface it to say that, yes, we definitely made a late decision for applying for the grant, but it was absolutely a community effort. We really needed to rely on community members from different agencies and groups and entities to do it, because we decided so late. So I really need to give credit to those community members. That really helped us, because without them, the complexity of what we wanted to do would never be achieved in terms of an application. So there's really a couple of different reasons for the name that we selected for Iowa Blueprint for Change, and the name itself was actually selected by one of the community members that assisted us in writing it, because as we were kind of dumping data into a Google document, that would help us to really outline what every agency that was participating, what their thoughts would be, and what they see as the needs. We really identified that through the reports that you mentioned. It would really give us that blueprint to move forward. And so there's a couple of different reasons. Like I said, for the name, first of all, the report from the Government Accountability Office or GAO, as they're typically known, was really about identifying 32 factors that they had indicated that really influenced the transition of people from different environments like subminimum wage into competitive, integrated employment. So those 32 factors really range from things such as what is the individual's family or their own unique perspective in terms of what could happen.

So what are their fears? What is the information that they know? What state policies are available within the state to kind of have some teeth, if you will, into making sure that employment first, for instance, is a focus. And also what is the local economy looking like. So those factors helped give us that blueprint. And to be honest, many of the factors that they mentioned really hold true in Iowa, where even though we don't have a large number of 14(C) certificate holders or that sub-minimum wage certificate holders, we recognize that we didn't have a lot. We have a handful, maybe five left. But the broader impact or the broader issue that we run into is that when those sub-minimum wage entities shut down, it really just meant a shift for those individuals not into work, but to sitting at home or to attending adult daycare, or the primary reason was going into day habilitation. And so we knew that that was a much, much broader issue, that when we have thousands and thousands of individuals in day habilitation, that some of which have employment, but many of which do not have competitive, integrated employment, we really knew that we needed to utilize that information as a blueprint to affect change systemically. In the state of Iowa, I would say the second reason that we really wanted to utilize the name Iowa Blueprint for Change was because we came across information related to the Collective Impact Forum, and that's really a cross sector framework that has a belief that if you bring a large number of individuals collectively together, they can make a really broad impact and advance equality if they're working together.

So we wanted to utilize that model of collective impact to really focus on what can we have individuals and we're talking individuals from people with lived experience to their parents to parent support groups, educators, community providers, you know, a number of individuals coming together and then separating out the work, saying, how could we get this done in workgroups? So through that, we wanted to create what we would call a blueprint of what do we need to do systemically, like at the policy level, what do we need to do at the agency level? All of those agencies that really have a stake in the game for, or funding employment for individuals with disabilities. What do we need to do at a local, maybe support level, where there's these groups that are specific to people with disabilities, what could they do to affect change and then all the way down to the individual level. So when we come together, we can start to develop that blueprint and say as an individual representing vocational rehabilitation, for instance, I know that we need to commit to if we learn through this grant that, for instance, community providers don't have enough funding, what can we commit to in an actual document that we call our blueprint that would ensure that we have committed to making that change? So we would have these series of blueprints that would really help us to drive and have everyone involved commit to that systems level all the way down to the individual level change.

So that really it was a twofold idea in terms of the blueprint, and it really brought together all of those individuals, like I mentioned, to make sure that they're committed. Because if we go into this, we knew that if we didn't have the support of all those other agencies and individuals and really show the face of the people that this change would impact, then we're going to be kind of dead in the water. We're not going to be able to move forward, if you will. So that's really the name that research. Also, that second report from the advisory committee was really also touching on the current atmosphere in Iowa and contributed to that blueprint, because we have made major strides in Iowa to move towards employment, we still face a number of challenges, like a lack of adequate training and support that can build capacity, professional competence across all levels of service provision. We have a lack of or we really did have a lack of a solid base of employment services grounded in evidence based practices. So all of these things combined were things that we knew we needed to utilize as a blueprint to really move the needle, if you will.


Carol: Yeah, I really enjoyed that part of the narrative, I did. Because it was so interesting and I thought about that kind of the lost group, you know, you think, okay, 14(C)'s are going away, this is great. But then there's a whole group of people, like you said, they're sitting at home. So we're missing the boat because they didn't move on into VR or into employment. They're either at home or they're sitting in day habilitation. So I love that you are focused on these folks for sure. Now, I know Iowa has done a lot of work, like, in fact, you guys have been the beneficiaries of several grants. Grants through ODEP and different initiatives that have really led you to this point. So let's dig into your actual projects. So I know there was the IPS component. Let's talk about what are these other elements of the project that you're trying to accomplish?


Brandy: Absolutely. The purpose, as you had mentioned Carol earlier, the purpose of this particular DIF grant was to focus on that movement from sub minimum wage or those contemplating sub minimum wage into competitive integrated employment. And the intent of those DIF grants in general is to, you know, really support innovative activities. And we really took that to heart is how can we be innovative in what we're doing and not just stop at like, let's say a minimum wage job, but how can we achieve more than that? How can we move into economic security for the individuals that we're focused on? So that's really what we tried to do. We wanted to make sure that we touched on that issue of really the sub minimum wage isn't the issue, but how can we achieve success with all of those others, that lost group? As you mentioned. What I liked about the grant is it gave us the opportunity to define what we mean by contemplating sub minimum wage. So we tried to take a much broader approach. It's not somebody just thinking about going into sub minimum wage, but what we believe is it's any of those individuals that are traditionally maybe kind of pushed or it's suggested to them that maybe volunteering or staying at home or going into adult day care or day habilitation is the right approach for you. And so for our contemplating subminimum wage, we talked about what about students with the greatest need in the schools, individuals or students with Social Security benefits based on their own disability.

We also opened it up to individuals with more severe mental health disabilities, which we mentioned earlier was Ashley's passion, as well as those individuals who are receiving a service such as waiver or whatever it might be, but aren't focused on employment. So that laid the groundwork to say these are all the individuals we want to serve. From there, we developed the goal to advance and improve systems so that Iowans with disabilities have competitive, integrated employment opportunities that lead to economic security. We developed really six primary objectives that would help us get there. And I know later we can dive into the specific activities, but ultimately, we wanted to first use. What I had mentioned before is that collective impact approach. So our first objective was really about engaging a large collective of diverse stakeholders that can really help us to guide the work. So really the change is happening through them. And, they would use those different systems, change models such as collective impact, diversity, equity and inclusion. You know, that type of thing to support individuals with disabilities, move into CIE or competitive integrated employment. The next area that we wanted to focus on is developing an actual registered apprenticeship and quality pre apprenticeship program that would not only increase the number of direct support professionals in the state of Iowa, because through our comprehensive statewide needs assessment and through talking with all these community members, one of the issues that we had is just a lack of available staff to provide job coaching and all those supports.

So not only did we want to increase the number of individuals that could go through a program by creating and serving as an intermediary for an apprenticeship program, but also we wanted to make sure that we try to include and bring individuals with disabilities themselves to serve and to go through those apprenticeship programs. So that was the other objective. The third one is really about making an impact in the transition field because as Paul mentioned, that's his passion and that's my passion too. So how do we do that? What we decided to do is really develop some pilot projects that focus on uninterrupted transition to competitive, integrated employment for youth, especially those youth with the most significant disabilities. So utilizing a combination of technical assistance, grant dollars and training to really start earlier, introduce evidence based practices earlier, and provide training to the educators themselves as to the adult world of support, such as waiver. The fourth thing that we had mentioned that we wanted to do is to really facilitate that increase in individuals with disabilities in the state of Iowa, not only obtaining, but maintaining competitive, integrated employment.

So diving into how do we increase opportunities? The next one was to increase the expectation and demand for CIE. So how do we promote this? How do we squash any misconceptions about what working means? For instance, for people on Social Security benefits, how do we involve parents and individuals with disabilities to serve as mentors themselves? You know, how do we affect change in that area? And finally, we wanted to really align those public policies. So develop an employment first policy. And in a technology and first policy that really puts those teeth into making the change in Iowa, as well as getting together those agencies that once again have the ability to fund employment programs and make sure that we really do a deep dive in, a commitment to increasing that funding, if that's what we learn is necessary so that our provider partners aren't really stuck in what we want to provide these great evidence based practices for instance.. But, they're not really achievable because we lose money. So looking at that issue and then just making sure that we have a focus across the state, that competitive, integrated employment is the first and preferred outcome for all individuals with disabilities. So that's really like a broad overview of what we were hoping to achieve.


Carol: You have bitten off a lot. Like in reading that, when I went through it, I went, oh my gosh, like, is this a five year grant or is this a ten year grant? Because there's a lot you're going to do. But I think with especially this particular subject, the systems change foundation of what your proposal talked about is so important because you can't do this unless you really engage all of the various partners to affect this sort of high level of change. Do you have certain targets, like the number of individuals you're trying to, like, what's the big target for the five year completion of your activities?


Brandy: So that's another area that we really bit off, probably more than we can handle. But we wanted to make sure that for outreach purposes, we provided outreach to every single individual in day habilitation, which is thousands and every, you know, student that has disability benefits or that could really qualify as a as an individual. So we had much broader numbers there. So we're talking thousands. But in terms of breaking it down, the great thing about this grant is they connected a national evaluator, which is Mathematica, that comes in and really dives in with us going, okay, that's a big piece. Now let's go. How many of those do you think? You know, through various pilot projects, through the different components of this, can you actually bring in because, you know, some are going to say, I'm not interested. Some are going to maybe, you know, have a different reason for not participating. So then they helped us to say, that's the goal for outreach. We're going to provide information to all of those individuals and also ensure that every one of those individuals that wants to be part of that broad collective that I talked about can participate and even serve in leadership roles. Then, from the number of individuals will actually serve, we have a little over 300 to say, we want to commit to this number of adults and this number of students to actually do it. Which is a lot of individuals as well. When you're talking only five years, especially since the first year is really about getting contracts ready, figuring out your team, trying to identify what you're doing. So definitely we thought big in that area as well.


Carol: Go big or go home, I like it. So, Ashley, you've been sitting here patiently waiting. You're the counselor specialist focused on the apprenticeship program. Can you tell us more about that? Like what do you do? Like what are you focused on? What's your role like?


Ashley: Absolutely. So really my role is just to support and guide our work group that we have that has volunteered their time to be part of this. So our work group consists of different businesses, educators, community providers, individuals with lived experience that want to build this program to ensure that it's successful. So right now, our work group has looked at the Direct support professional registered apprenticeship that already exists in the state of Iowa, and that's registered. And we're looking at what can we take from that. And really kind of DIF it, if that makes sense. So we want to make sure that we're taking what we're seeing within our need and the lack of the workforce that's currently available for those positions, and open that up again. Just really kind of supporting and guiding them. So that started with we branched out and we've talked to different states about some of their pre apprenticeships and registered apprenticeships that they have in the specific area, being able to kind of get the what went well, what didn't go well with them. So we can maybe avoid some of that and not repeat it. Partnering again we've partnered with everybody that I've listed earlier, but then we also have a couple registered apprenticeship gurus with the Iowa Workforce Development Group that have volunteered their time to be part of our group.

So they're really like a good sounding board for us. So if we get some crazy ideas and we throw them at the two ladies that we have, they're like, yeah, let's do this. One of the great ideas that we have is stackable credentials. So being able to not just create a registered apprenticeship that gives you the ability to be a direct support professional, but also gives you the ability to advance in the career. And so the individuals that we're targeting that we want to be part of our apprenticeship is obviously the individuals that we're targeting within our grant. So individuals that are really interested in helping others, but maybe just haven't been able to find that right area to specialize that in. So if somebody comes into the registered apprenticeship program and they are wanting to be a supervisor eventually, then we can provide the opportunities and the abilities for them to be trained and have the opportunity to do that. The nice thing about our grant too, is then we can also work with the providers and the businesses that are wanting to support our registered apprenticeship and not only support the business, but offer some incentives with them.

So if they're willing to put some teeth behind it, then we'll put some teeth behind it too, because it's going to take all of us working together for this to be successful. Also, the other really cool thing that I think we're building into our registered apprenticeship is specialty areas. So you talked about and Brittany talked about like my specialty area is really mental health. That's something I'm super passionate about. Other individuals have passions with intellectual disabilities, or they have passions with assistive technology areas, just any really area that somebody wants to gain some more knowledge in that they're super interested in, that could benefit them in the workforce, then let's provide them that opportunity. It's a work in progress. Right now we have 24 core competencies that we're reviewing to figure out if we want to leave them as they are, or if we want to alter some of them. And like I said earlier, kind of DIF them. So that's what our work group is doing right now. And again, the beautiful thing about it is we all come from very different backgrounds, so we all bring very different perspectives, which I think is going to make this a very beautiful program at the very end of it.


Carol: Very cool. I like that I haven't heard anybody say that yet, that they're DIF'ing it. And so now we've got it. We've got a new term.


Ashley: Absolutely. Just made that up too. So we're just going to roll with it


Carol: I love it. I like rolling., So Paul, I know you're focused on the transition pilot. Talk a little bit about that. What's going on with that and how's your role with it?


Paul: Yeah, of course, my previous experience, like I had mentioned, was overseeing two transition programs in the schools for the past ten years. After WIOA came out, we did notice, as Brandi had mentioned, students were going to adult daycare, just going home, sitting at home with parents, brother or sister, any kind of family member, and really not getting out in the community and being that competitive, integrated, employed. And so what our goal here is, is that each year for. The next three years, we're actually going to start two pilot projects, and we had created a work group. This would have been last August for the transition piece of the diff. As we say, we're DIF'ing it, of the DIF, the transition work group. And so we have actually been meeting we created a call for interest. And that went out to all CRP's, all AEA's, all LEA's throughout the state. And then we had proposals that were returned to us here over the past month or two. And we actually then took our group, reviewed those proposals and did choose to sites to receive this funding for these pilot programs here this year. We're actually starting those initial meetings with the schools. And so what we want to do is we want to partner with the CRP's, the school districts, mental health providers, and we want to be able to provide customized employment or IPSY at a much younger age in the high school. One thing that I had noticed around the state was that, you know, discovery might start that senior year for a student, that's way too late, way too late. What are you really going to know in the span of a year to make sure that they're going to be successful after their graduation? So what we're really hoping is that we can partner them with the IEP team. Like I mentioned, the mental health providers CRP's the school district teachers and start that discovery process freshman year. Also, some of the outreach where we can have students applying for like waiver services at a much younger age as well too, just because the waiting list right now is 5 or 6 years for some of that. So for additional funding after graduation, we were even talking about going into some of the middle schools to try and make sure that that outreach happens and those services are available, because that's another gap that we saw with students graduating without those waiver services or funding to be available there as that long term support. Also did want to just mention that we want to provide technical assistance to the AEA's and local school districts of one focus for the DIF. As we're DIF'ing it, is assistive technology. And so we want to be able to support job candidates. The school districts, AEA's with our assistive technology funds and how we're able to tie that in, along with the earlier service provision, to have better outcomes at graduation.


Carol: I like it. You're speaking my language with getting at these students younger, because I agree that whole business with senior year too late, too late, too.


Paul: Way too, yeah, way too late.


Carol: You know, getting at kids younger and just it is also and their families to get them exposed to other things. I think about how many of our students never had a job. You know, they aren't babysitting, they aren't mowing the lawn, they aren't doing anything. They don't get any exposure to that. And then all of a sudden, like, you graduate and you're going to go to work, you know, that just it's a foreign thought. And so I really like what you're doing with that and getting at the kids way younger. The IPSY that you said is good stuff. Now, I know as I've talked to grantees, everybody says year one is kind of a bummer because there's always challenges. You got slow starts and stops and all of that. How about any challenges you guys face to your one, or how did you kind of hit those head on?


Brandy: So we absolutely faced obstacles the first year. In fact, I think our motto for the year was that we will always pivot. So in other words, when we were awarded, we had to kind of keep changing the plan a bit to address everything that came our way, if that makes sense. So when we were awarded, the first thing to keep in mind is that typically with these DIF grants, you're notified that you're awarded only a couple of days before the grant year begins. So that is not a lot of preparation and planning time for you to get contracts started, if that makes sense, and to get things rolling. And there's also a really relevant push from RSA to make sure that those funds are expended, that they award you. And that is absolutely not a problem that we have. We'd love to spend the funds to get this rolling. But Iowa is one of, I'm sure, many states that have a very strict procurement process. So one of the things that we ran into right away is that even though we could identify in our grant some of the partners that we wanted to utilize, we still, once we were awarded, had to begin that long process of really making sure that we knew if we had to do an RFP, if we could go to sole source agreements, if we could work with other state entities and get it in faster.

And so we ran into some issues where, you know, for instance, there was a provider that really wanted to work with us, but due to some of those procurement issues and due to us being unable to reach an agreement in terms of things like salary, we really then had to pivot and go, well, that part of the plan isn't going to work. So we had to reach out to the community again and say, who wants to dive in with us and DIF it? As Ashley had mentioned, who wants to get in there and really do this because our original plan wasn't going to work. So that's the tough part to keep in mind is that there's that combination of knowing that the applicant process can be very slow. You know, when you're going through an RFP or procurement combined with RSA, who wants you to spend the money? So that's one of the issues that we ran into. And really the thing to keep in mind is this was a front loaded grant. So that means that you have this big pot of money and you're excited because you can get started with that immediately. However, you need to be aware of your state level rules, because we knew that we'd need a decent amount of staff to make this happen because we had such a broad idea. The other thing that we ran into is securing the full time positions, or the FTEs to do the work was really, really difficult.

So, for instance, as Ashley and Paul would tell you, they didn't begin this at the beginning. They actually didn't come in until July of 2023. So we started October 2022. And the first time our state could say, yep, we think we moved two positions. We kind of had to beg, borrow and steal just to do that same thing with other entities that we're working with. They have a very long process for hiring. So we went from, you know, well, this is something that we want to do October 1st, and then we didn't even get the contract secured. And then they had to go through hiring. So we spent the first year dealing with that. The other thing I think was it really wasn't a major barrier, but one thing that we had to keep in mind is that even though a lot of agencies were really willing to talk, some of them weren't willing to take the leap with us. So we had to do a lot of meetings and discussions and honest conversations and the state to say we are all after the same thing. And that's a focus of people with disabilities moving into competitive integrated employment. Are you willing to jump on board with us? So I would say those are the major issues that we had.


Carol: Yeah, it sounds very familiar with other states. And I think you give good advice with people understanding your own state procurement processes and such so that you keep it in mind, because I know folks want to jump in and then you go, gosh, this whole year flew by and we're doing mostly planning and just trying to get the people on board because, shoot, it took you nine months to get Ashley and Paul going. So that's a big chunk. It's just everybody needs to sort of maybe temper expectations year one. So on a flip side, what would you say have been some initial successes or things you're super excited about that have happened? I know you're early on, but have you had any initial success stories or anything?


Paul: Yeah, I think we've actually had quite a few success stories, surprisingly, as we're DIF'ing it. The creation of our work groups, I would say when we came on in July, the work groups hadn't been created yet. And those are for those six objectives that Brandi had outlined. And so really moving things with like policy and apprenticeships and the transition piece, getting all the stakeholders to come to our collective meetings quarterly and then having them choose a work group to become a part of and then meet with that work group. So with the transition work group, I just use that for an example. We met bi-weekly, and so having stakeholders from around the state come in and really buy into what we were talking about and help develop that call for interest for letters and then get those proposals in. Also, what we've been doing to better understand some of the subminimum wage providers is we've been touring those 14(C) certificate holders to better understand their communities, what their needs are, why are they still providing some minimum wage? How can we support them to move away from Subminimum wage? And from then what we're looking towards is developing a business plan. That way we can do a lot of outreach both to those 14(C) certificate holders, but then also businesses in the community, so we can help them move away from subminimum wage to competitive, integrated employment.

I would say another success is that we have chosen those two pilot programs for the Transition Work group, and we actually meet next week with the first school district. And so I'm always a person of action. And so this is really, really exciting for me to finally see these things getting rolling and getting all the stakeholders together and really planning for the students and planning for the future. So with that, what we're planning is, is that service provision for those school districts will start then in August once the school year starts. So that gives us a few months to get everybody on board, hire any staff that needs to be hired and get those pilot programs rolling. And then like I said, we'll be doing two more per year. Also, the high number of individuals, as I mentioned, we have that collective meeting that we do quarterly, but the high number of individuals that have participated in that, we've had upwards of 100 or more in those meetings and there's zoom meetings. So we have people from around the country really, and it's really amazing to see the buy in and the support that the DIF grant and the things that we're doing have.


Carol: That is super cool to hear. I'm really happy for you guys. So if people want to find out more about you, does someone want to throw out your website address that folks can access?


Brandy: We actually have a webpage on our vocational rehabilitation website, so it's And from there under the About us section, there's an Iowa Blueprint for Change webpage. We actually provide information there. The sign up for the collectives that anyone can really join but also, then we put a specific contact information for Ashley, Paul, myself,  anyone willing to do the work. So you just reach out, its one door for or many doors, or path, I guess you could say, . You can reach out to any of us and you can get to who you need to get to. But also, if you're interested in, What are we doing with transition and how can we support that? Paul's information is on there as well. As that area focus covering and same with Ashley for what she's doing. So we list that all out there.


Carol: Excellent. 'cause  usually we have folks that do want to reach out, So don't be surprised. And you may get a call like in a year or six months cause people go back and listen to your old episode and they're like, hey, I want to reach out to those Iowa people. Well, I look forward to checking back in with you all as you get further down the road and see how things are rolling. But I'm super excited about your progress and what you're doing today my fellow neighbors. So thanks for joining me today. I hope you have a great day.


Brandy: Thanks, Carol.


Ashley: Thank you.


Paul: Thanks, Carol.



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