By Julia M. Johnson

Innovation in Philanthropy Winner

The best thing about a partnership is that it enriches both parties, and that certainly is true of the relationship between the Special School District of St. Louis County (SSD) and Accent Group Solutions, a warehouse, distribution, fulfillment and printing provider, located in Crestwood.


Together, the two organizations help students with special needs acquire employment skills to lead fulfilling lives, and the program’s benefits work both ways, leaders said.


Erica and Jason Hughes, founders of Accent Group Solutions, first considered working with SSD after attending a meeting on resources for teens with special needs. Their son has lissencephaly, a brain disorder, and they realized they could combine their own experience and professional expertise to help the district prepare other students for the future. That was six years ago, and the two organizations have since impacted dozens of young lives together.


“We host students for a vocational skills program that lasts nine months, through the school year,” Erica Hughes said. “Teachers from the district meet with us to figure out a program that is a good fit for the students, including work opportunities and classroom learning. Speakers, community specialists and support dogs can be brought in to help them grow from a life skills perspective.”


Students’ days are divided between classroom work and hands-on job instruction such as operating label and tape machines or running a cardboard shredder. They also learn useful soft skills like communication and teamwork. The program serves students from St. Louis city and county.


Special education teacher Kim Gettemeier said young people emerge from the program feeling well rounded and ready for the future.


“It’s wonderful because we can have parent involvement and home-school contact at every step,” Gettemeier said. “We problem-solve together and get useful feedback about what is working well. The students are grateful for real-world opportunities that will mean something to them in the very near future.”


Gettemeier said students rely on the support of the special education system over the years, but when it’s time to move on from school, they still have the knowledge and connections they need thanks to the partnership. Some end up working for Accent Group in the long term; others find employment with outside companies.


The program also benefits Accent Group, according to Hughes and Gettemeier. As a result of the partnership, Accent Group employees become more attuned to the challenges faced by people with disabilities, and they develop a special sense of empathy and inclusiveness.


“I get emotional just thinking about it,” Hughes said. “Having a child with special needs opens your eyes to a new world, and it’s wonderful to share these kids with other people who might not normally get to know them. One of my biggest goals is to see more privately held companies become partner sites for this kind of program. It’s a true blessing for everyone concerned.”


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