Education Access: Inclusive Learning and Work Opportunities

To best serve communities in need, we understand the importance of building a workforce that works for everyone, and giving those in underrepresented communities the tools they need to thrive and succeed in school, work, and life. Like in previous years, our work in 2023 involved partnering with and supporting organizations that enhance opportunity and accessibility for diverse populations. Our support of these organizations in 2023 is anticipated to provide 180,000 individuals with access to education.

Employment for Everyone: Workforce Development and Training for Individuals with Disabilities

Building a Diverse Nursing Workforce Through Mentorship and Student Empowerment

Employment for Everyone: Workforce Development and Training for Individuals with Disabilities

Individuals with intellectual disabilities (ID) often face stigma and discrimination in many school, work, and community settings, and when it comes to employment, they are often not given the opportunities, training, or resources they need to develop skillets and be successful.

Findings from the National Snapshot of Adults with Intellectual Disabilities in the Labor Force reveal that fewer than one out of every two working age adults with ID is in the labor force, and only 44 percent of adults with an ID aged 21-64 are in the labor force.

Organizations like The Barber National Institute, a family-founded organization that got its start in 1952, are critical for ensuring adults with intellectual disabilities have access to workforce development and training opportunities that will help them advance in career areas, prioritize their personal and professional growth, and become productive members of the workforce.

Barber National Institute in Erie, Pennsylvania, was born out of Dr. Gertrude Barber's idea that there must be a way to meet people with intellectual disabilities where they are and honor their unique needs and skills.

While working for many years as an administrator in the Erie School District, Dr. Barber often had to meet with families and share the harsh reality that their children with disabilities did not have a place to learn or receive specialized services in school. Children either had to learn at home or be sent to far away institutions, until she took it upon herself to establish the first class for students with intellectual disabilities at the YWCA. From that point on, Barber National Institute continued to grow into a place that meets the needs of children and adults with autism, intellectual disabilities, or behavioral health challenges, and their families.

In addition to Erie, Barber National Institute has locations in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Warren, Bedford, and Somerset, and it employs more than 3,000 people to carry out its mission of helping individuals reach their full potential.

One of Barber National Institute’s main vocational services for workforce training and development, Project SEARCH, is an international program designed to help individuals with intellectual disabilities access competitive integrated employment opportunities. Barber National Institute works with five partners to operate its Project SEARCH services, including Allegheny Health Network's Saint Vincent Hospital, Barber National Center, Erie School District, Department of Labor & Industry's Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, and Erie County Department of Human Services.

After going through the interview process with Project SEARCH's partner organizations, students are then assigned internships at Allegheny Health Network's Saint Vincent Hospital, where they first learn soft skills and practice working and interacting with others. After these initial activities, they move on to hard skills or the physical work of the internship, and once the full 10-week period is up, they either get hired at their initial internship site or move on to their next internship at the host organization. "The internship sites not only have welcomed in the students, but they have given us a lot of resources and supports that are very helpful, and the students feel welcome in those programs," said Barber National Institute Associate Director Michelle Izbicki.

Many students choose to stay involved with Barber National Institute’s programs and events in various capacities after they graduate, which goes to show how ingrained a role it has in the lives of students and their families.

"When students leave the program, they stay with us. They slide right into our supportive employment program, or even at Saint Vincent, they stay with us. Barber is always the next service provider that they choose," said Izbicki.

As a champion for equal access and opportunities for people of all backgrounds, identities, and ability levels, we were pleased to support The Barber Institute’s work again in 2023, and uplift its mission and impactful services, which align closely with our own.

"Highmark is a very strong partner here in Northwest Pennsylvania," said Tammy Roche, Barber National Institute’s Strategic Communications Director. "They are right there with us advocating and lifting up all that we’re doing in the region."


Building a Diverse Nursing Workforce Through Mentorship and Student Empowerment

Often, students of color may feel discouraged from pursuing a nursing career because they don't see a lot of people who look like them represented in medicine or treating them at the doctor's office. According to a recent National Nursing Workforce Survey, nearly 81% of registered nurses reported being white, leaving 19% of the workforce being made up of minority nurses.

Building a more diverse nursing workforce not only means opening more doors for minority populations to establish a career around healing and making a difference for others, but it also ensures nurses are better equipped to treat diverse patients and provide enhanced quality healthcare based on their own lived and education-based experiences.

In our commitment to uplifting organizations that create opportunities for people of all backgrounds and identities in healthcare, we have supported Russell Sage College (RSC) in Northeastern New York during the early stages of funding and implementing its mentor training for I Can Achieve a Nursing Degree (ICAN). The ICAN program is geared toward empowering Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) high school students to pursue nursing degrees, reducing the nursing shortage, and increasing the diversity of nursing professionals throughout the state.

RSC is a co-educational college best known for its health science and nursing programs and serving undergraduate and graduate students online and on its campuses in Albany and Troy, NY.  They are creating a faculty professional nurse mentorship orientation and training program that complements its ICAN program by helping nursing students from minority and underrepresented communities graduate and secure jobs in their field.

Training nurses and mentors to operate from a lens of cultural competency is incredibly important for ensuring the fair and accessible education, hiring and retention of current and future generations of diverse nurses. RSC’s ICAN program, which began in 2023, is expected to be fully implemented throughout 2024-2025. Their Communications Director will help coordinate a Health Science ICAN Summit to introduce healthcare professionals and students to resources and trainings designed to educate about the value of mentorship and relationship-building, improving staff retention and healthcare outcomes by creating a welcoming environment for BIPOC nurses, and honoring diverse perspectives and identities in the field.

With support from us and other partners and healthcare organizations, RSC’s ICAN program is projected to serve or impact around 560 students, professionals and families.

RSC is one of many schools we have worked with over the years to increase accessibility and opportunities for nurses, particularly in communities of color. We also support a nursing scholarship program at Penn State Health. Similarly, we have provided support for the training of healthcare professionals at ChristianaCare in Delaware, and we are supporting a new healthcare workforce training program at Trocaire College in Western New York, that is focused on licensed practical nurse certification and employment.