DREAM BIG Summer Career Camps Inspire Students

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This summer Starkloff Disability Institute touched the lives of 20 high school students with disabilities and their families through the DREAM BIG program. The program expanded to offer three weeks of Career Camp this year to inspire students to explore careers they may have never thought possible.

Eighteen St. Louis companies opened their doors to the DREAM Big students over the course of the summer. Dozens of employees participated in hands-on activities, talked one-on-one, and got to know our students, our staff and our mission. They also learned more about disability as part of a diverse workforce.

The 20 students have varying disabilities, including some on the Autism spectrum, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, low vision, limited mobility, muscular dystrophy and speech impairment. Students heard about the Career Camp from our partners at Special School District, high school counselors, partner agencies, and some of their parents saw it on advertised on Facebook.

The first one-week session, held in early June, had nine campers and focused on STEM related careers. Students visited Monsanto, Centene, Bi-State Development, Express Scripts, Riot Games and Boeing. The highlights of the week included the one-on-one mentoring at Monsanto, the programming workshop at Riot Games and the Virtual Reality activities at Boeing. All of the students were incredibly engaged and excited to learn more about possible careers.

The second session, held in later June, was designed for students who plan to attend trade or tech school after high school. Seven campers visited Cortex Innovation Center, where they went to Centene, Microsoft, Boeing Manufacturing and CIC. They also visited St. Louis Community College Culinary Arts School, Boeing Manufacturing, LaunchCode and Centene Claims Center. Students especially loved cooking at the St. Louis Community College Culinary Arts School, learning about the STLCC Boeing Pre-Employment Training Program and spending time with our host at Boeing. Programming at LaunchCode was also one of their favorites.

Session three just wrapped in late July and featured a total of six campers. This week focused on a variety of career options for students who will be going on to pursue at least a bachelor’s degree.  Students visited Danforth Plant Science Center, Nestle Purina PetCare, Washington University School of Occupational Therapy, Fleishman-Hillard and the Missouri History Museum. The highlights of this week were the surprising variety of jobs available at Purina, such as a chef; spending one-on-one time with interns and employees at Fleishman; and the museum planning activity at the History Museum.

Every morning at camp the host company led the programming, which included a tour of the facility, interactive activities with staff members, panel discussions, and one-on-one conversations between students and employees to gain real insight into what the company does and their culture.

Afternoons were filled with activities led by Starkloff staff and focused on disability acceptance, independent living, self-advocacy, financial literacy and discussions on the transition after high school. SDI staff members Sarah Schwegel, Youth Transition Coordinator and Steve Foelsch, Director of Disability Studies, both wheelchair users, serve as examples for students that they too can grow up to have jobs of their choice and live independently.

“Young people with disabilities need to see others with disabilities in leadership positions,” says Colleen Starkloff, founder of the Starkloff Disability Institute. “That’s why it is so important for Sarah and Steve to work with the students and parents; so they can see there is power in owning your disability.

Kids do not see enough people like themselves in the business community,” Colleen explains. “That is why we created DREAM BIG. “Kids need to know there are great opportunities out there and that wonderful companies are looking to welcome them. But they need to prepare themselves and be confident in who they are. That is what they learn here during our Career Camp.”

Students each had very different takeaways from the weeks of camp. Dwan said, “My favorite part was meeting the new campers. One thing I took away was to be more of an advocate for myself.”

Another student, Jonna, said that “I learned there are a lot of job opportunities even if you have disabilities.”

Parents noted their children’s benefits as well. One student’s father said that DREAM BIG helped his son be “more comfortable with his disability and being around others with disabilities.”  Another said, “He is more aware of the outside world. His wheels are starting to turn – thinking about his future. He is more aware of a variety of disabilities.”

SDI would like to thank all the companies and individuals who have made these three weeks of DREAM BIG possible this summer. We greatly appreciate all the partnerships, and the willingness of each company to host us for a day at your workplace. You helped us make a big difference in the lives of these 20 students. They now know the importance of dreaming big!


To view photos from all three weeks of DREAM BIG Career Camp, click here!


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