Lehigh Valley

Always Aware: Autism Awareness Month

Always Aware: Autism Awareness Month

SCHNECKSVILLE, Pa. - Dozens of people poured into Schnecksville, Lehigh County this weekend for the Lehigh Valley Zoo's season grand opening.

 "The atmosphere today of course is very exciting," smiled President and CEO Rick Molchany.

"There's going to be a lot of people here today," added employee Jason Benwald.

 Every year the zoo brings in volunteers and interns to help with the grounds and animals.

 "It's a great opportunity," shared Samantha Wegman.  "Each day is different."

 "I have a lot of aspirations, it's just which one to chose," said Benwald.

 "The Lehigh Valley Zoo gives them an opportunity and we're very proud to have them," explained Molchany.

One special worker is 21-year-old Andre Walck.  He was adopted from Russia and at five years old he was diagnosed with PDD which is on the autistic spectrum.

"Sometimes people with autism have a difficulty interacting in social situations, communicating and learning," described Jim Kochie an Instructor with Project Search.  "So they have a lot of skills but sometimes have difficulty using those skills to work."

The journey for Andre has been a long one.  When he was younger he was very hyper, had issues with boundaries, his motor skills were lacking and he had problems communicating.

 "When we started and got his first diagnosis it was what kind of life is he going to have and where is he going to end up," said Andre's mother Kim Waldron.

When Andre was a freshman in high school administrators told his parents about Project Search.  It's a nine month school-to-work program that's been offered to young adults with special needs in the Lehigh Valley for five years.  Only 10% of people with disabilities are employed in America, it's something the program aims to change.

"It helps individuals with disabilities who otherwise would not have an opportunity to work to learn the skills to be competitively employed," shared Kochie.

After applying  to the program and passing an interview, Andre was granted one of the 14 spots available this year.  The Lehigh Valley Zoo is the third location he is spending 12 weeks learning on the job skills.  On June 7th he'll be finished and graduate high school.

 "It helps them to work at the site, learn the job and when they graduate high school have experience," added Kochie.

Even Andre has seen a change in himself since starting the program.

"From the time I first came to Project Search I was new, I was scared, I was stressed, I was anxiety," said Andre.  "It makes me feel like I'm very independent."

Andre takes the bus to work and says seeing the things he accomplishes makes him happy.

"It's been helping me a lot because I know a lot of stuff now."

Everyone agrees, thanks to Project Search Andre's future is looking brighter then ever.

"Now we're here and he's an adult and he's a young man and his future's looking really good," beamed Waldron.

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