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Mohegan Sun plays major role in helping those with disabilities

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Mohegan — In Mohegan Sun’s wardrobe department, young people with disabilities are making seamless transitions.

Ranging in age from 18 to 21, they’ve completed the academic requirements for high school diplomas. Now, they’re mastering what it takes to make it in the real world, including holding down a meaningful job.

Some of them, perhaps most, will end up working here permanently.

The students are enrolled in the Norwich school system’s Norwich Transition Academy, an early participant in the Mohegan Sun Student Vocational Inclusion Program. The Ledyard, Montville and Waterford school systems also have joined, and United Cerebral Palsy of Eastern Connecticut has announced that it will collaborate with Mohegan Sun and the state Department of Developmental Services to provide a dozen internships at the casino for young people with physical, developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Tom Dufort, director of the Norwich Transition Academy, recalled that he and Bill Donehey, Mohegan Sun’s performance improvement manager, put the inclusion program together in 2011. He said the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA, had urged schools to ensure that their special-needs students have the employment skills to function as adults.

Then new to Norwich, Dufort put in a “cold call” to Mohegan Sun.

“Bill took care of everything on his end,” Dufort said of Donehey. “He made sure that the internships involved real work, that the students were doing the same things that Mohegan Sun’s paid employees did. Every year, it expanded."

The Norwich Transition Academy places students in internships at other host sites, too, including a Papa Gino’s restaurant, Big Y and Goodwill outlets and Dodd Stadium. Each day, students report to the academy’s Hickory Street location, where they have lockers and access to kitchen and laundry facilities. They’re given weekly stipends to shop for groceries, and prepare their own lunches.

Then it’s off to work.

At Mohegan Sun, students rotate into stints in a number of departments over the course of the academic year — wardrobe, culinary, the fitness center, housekeeping, landscaping and others.

Dufort said nine Norwich Transition Academy graduates are working at the casino.

'Employment and independence'

Behind the scenes at Mohegan Sun, the corridors have street names. One of them, “Uncas Mile,” says something about the size of the space.

It’s here, in a few crowded rooms off the main drag, that the casino’s wardrobe department maintains the uniforms worn by nearly 7,000 employees. The department tracks some 652 different kinds of garments, the total number of items nearing 102,000, according to Pat Roberge, the department’s director.

Working alongside regular employees, the students launder and inventory the garments, organize the stockroom, prepare name tags, attach barcodes, sew on buttons and answer phones.

Generally, a half-dozen Norwich interns are working in the department at any one time.

“For many, this is their first work experience,” said Austin Dayger, a Norwich Transition Academy jobs coach who joins students at the host site. “Employment and independence are the goals. We want them to be able to make a seamless transition from the high school environment.”

All of the Norwich students spend time in Mohegan Sun’s wardrobe department and, for many, it’s the worksite where they have the most success, Dayger said.

On the same day last week that Norwich students were interning in wardrobe, students from the Ledyard school system's transition program were working in the casino’s culinary department in another “back of the house” location.

Stef Denegre, a Ledyard transition coach, said three of his students were working that day in the bake shop and three more were in the casino’s Seasons Buffet. Over time, he said, the students have the opportunity to gravitate toward the departments in which they prefer to work.

One thing that helps set Mohegan Sun apart as a host site is the range of opportunities it provides and the diversity of the people who work there, virtually all of whom embrace the inclusion model, Denegre said.

“When the students have a question, they don’t come to me,” he said. “They go to their co-workers. It’s like they’re really working.”

Diversity good for business

By all accounts, Bill Donehey has been the driving force behind Mohegan Sun’s inclusion programs.

A 63-year-old Army veteran with a background in human resources and restaurant management, he arrived at the casino in 2001, left for a time and returned as a job trainer. He has some personal experience with physical disabilities, having grown up with impaired vision and suffering some hearing loss while training to fire shoulder-launched missiles in Vietnam.

Donehey believes the percentage of people “on the spectrum” for autism or having some other kind of disability is far greater than generally believed. What’s more, he said, almost everyone knows someone with a cognitive or physical disability.

“And 80 percent of them find employment,” he said.

People with disabilities are especially susceptible to bullying and anxiety, obstacles the students in Mohegan Sun’s inclusion programs typically overcome, according to Donehey. He said he’s seen many students develop the confidence to obtain a driver’s license, for example, which can be vital to keeping a job after high school.

When Waterford-based United Cerebral Palsy of Eastern Connecticut sought to participate in Project SEARCH, it turned to Donehey and Mohegan Sun.

“They welcomed us,” said Jennifer Keatley, UCP’s executive director. “We had a couple of people with developmental disabilities working there already and they were open to expanding.”

Project SEARCH, first introduced at a children’s hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, has spread across the United States. Its goal is to provide those with significant disabilities between 18 and 35 years of age with the on-the-job training they need to live productive adult lives.

“Mohegan Sun can afford interns a diversified workplace with a lot of opportunities in hospitality, finance, gaming,” Keatley said. "That's what makes them such a good partner."

Donehey "recognizes that a diverse workforce is good for business,” she said. “One in four Americans has a disability of some kind, be it physical, behavioral or intellectual. It might be something due to aging or acquired like MS (multiple sclerosis). It could be the symptoms experienced by a returning vet, or something a person is born with."

“Mohegan Sun is way ahead on this.”

How to apply

What: United Cerebral Palsy of Eastern Connecticut is taking applications for the 12 openings in the upcoming Project SEARCH internship program at Mohegan Sun, which will run from September 2019 through June 2020.

To apply: Information about the program and the application process will be available at a session from 6 to 8 p.m. March 7 at UCP of Eastern Connecticut, 42 Norwich Road, Quaker Hill.

And more: On March 16, Mohegan Sun will host a Disability Summit, bringing together representatives of 75 state and local agencies that support young people with disabilities.


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