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Disabled students help selves, community through OVR work experience program

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

Photos courtesy Tracey Pedersen
Seventeen year-old OVR student Mark Pryor helps pack the local food pantry with canned goods.


By Jamie Wiggan

Three local students have spent eight weeks of summer helping their community, and in the process, they’ve helped themselves.

The students, each of whom has a learning disability, participated in a paid work experience program where they cleaned up trash, power-washed fire engines and performed a host of other services for McKees Rocks Borough.

Overseen by Pennsylvania’s Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR), the program is designed to teach participants career and life skills as they transition from school into the workforce.

“For most kids, it’s their first job experience,” said Tracey Pedersen, borough tax collector and program supervisor.

The three participants this year said they each gained valuable skills and experiences.

“I learned patience,” said Mark Pryor, 17. “I learned to accept certain things are out of my control… it’s been demanding and gratifying.”

Pryor, a Sto-Rox student in his final year, plans to enroll in trade school to train for a career in carpentry.

Twenty-year-old Justin Mihalic, a recent Sto-Rox graduate, also wants to pursue a career in the trades. He said the OVR program taught him “responsibility, patience, communication and teamwork.”

Armani Person power washes the fire hall floor as part of her eight-week work experience program with McKees Rocks.

Armani Person, 20, isn’t yet sure what her next move might be, but said she’s taken from the program valuable lessons in “teamwork and safety.”

Faced with uncertainties stemming from the coronavirus, Pedersen said the program was nearly called off this year, but after learning OVR officers were struggling to recruit employers she said she felt compelled to step up.

“They’re here in the county, they need the extra money, and if someone doesn’t facilitate the program it would be canceled,” Pedersen said.

Since 2016, Pittsburgh’s OVR location has partnered with area municipalities to facilitate the program during summer months. The state funds the program on the basis that all parties benefit.

“It helps the borough, it helps public works, it helps the fire department,” Pedersen said.

Students must be referred by OVR staff, who partner with schools and learning institutions to determine eligible candidates.

This year’s cohort – all residents of the Sto-Rox School District – were particularly taken with the work in the fire house, they said.

Spending two or three days a week there, the students “got to experience what it’s like behind the scenes working in a fire house,” said Joe Petrunio, a firefighter and engineer for the McKees Rocks Volunteer Fire Department who supervised the students.

During that time, the students made fire engines sparkle, power-washed the concrete floor of the engine bay and tended to other housekeeping needs, Petrunio said.

“They cleaned the entire fire house,” he said.

Petrunio said he’s never supervised children or young adults before but would be happy to do it again following the success of the program.

“It was a big help having them come around and help pick up some of the slack,” he said. “I think the program’s a great idea and I hope we can do it again next year.”


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