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Taft Community: Transition to Independent Living (TIL)

Unique Students Learn How to Live Independently

by Vaun Thygerson
Staff writer and mother of three

With a diagnosis of Asperger’s, a disorder on the autism spectrum, Clarice Rucker thought she’d never be able to live on her own and take care of herself.  But thanks to a Taft College program, Transition to Independent Living (TIL), Clarice learned the skills and tools she needs to be self-sufficient.  

As one of the 285 participants of the TIL program since its inception in 1995, Clarice, age 21, and her peers with intellectual disabilities receive an enriching collegiate experience that gives them the tools they need to function independently and find gainful employment.  The TIL program’s curriculum focuses on teaching their students problem solving and conflict resolution skills, cooking, menu planning, budgeting, safety, and much more.

“This program gave me a wonderful feeling of accomplishment and freedom,” Clarice says.  “When you finish the program, you see that you’ve always had the strength to handle it on your own.” 

Clarice received her vocational certification from Taft College upon completion of the two-year TIL program.  She currently participates in a third year of educational experience because of a Transition Programs for Students with Intellectual Disabilities (TPSID) grant awarded by the Department of Education. She will be working a 20-hour-a-week internship in the graphic design department for Vintage Petroleum, a subsidiary of Occidental.  This third year grant gives these students an additional opportunity for career development.  Once the students have completed the two-year program, or the extended three-year program, they work towards a successful transition from Taft College to an independent living situation in their home community.

“At the end of the program, we encourage them to return to their own hometowns,” says Jeff Ross, director of student support services at Taft College. “We know they need a circle of support, so we encourage them to live within 25 miles of family.”

Funded by Kern Regional Center, the TIL program operates out of its sponsoring agency, Taft College.  With a 98 percent TIL certificate completion rate for its students, Ross believes in the adage:  “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day.  If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”

Ross keeps track of his graduates for 10 years and his long-term statistics are impressive.  Ninety-five percent of TIL graduates continue to live independently.  Eighty-nine percent are employed, of which 82 percent are competitively employed.  “We teach them how to fish,” says Ross.  And, the students and the economy benefit.

Ross says the program is also an economic development program because his students become productive members of society, who need less or no government subsidies when compared to others in their population.  “We can save the state of California $220 million over the next 40 years because of the TIL program,” Ross says.  “We have had such a great return on our investment since the first year of the program.”    

Employed by the district since 1976, Ross has a graduate degree in special education and has overseen many programs for disabled student services; and he wanted to create a program that really helped the students live independently.  After Taft College lost its football program, the football dorms were going unused, so Ross thought this was the perfect place to create “living classrooms” where students with intellectual disabilities could go to school to learn independent living skills. 

“Before we were teaching these students independent living skills and then they’d go home with no place to practice,” says Ross.  “This program provides the lab setting they needed where they really get to learn what it’s like to live independently.”

During the first year of the program, students live in one of TIL’s 28 dorms on campus where they practice the independent living skills they learn in their labs and classrooms.  During their second year, they live off campus in one of the 11 houses used by the program, where they live independently with other TIL students as roommates.  Each house has a Life Skills Aid that checks in on them daily to help with their needs, but it’s the students’ responsibility to manage their household duties, their budget, work and class schedules, and transportation to and from work and school.     

Two second-year TIL students Gabrielle Zoger, age 19 from Lafayette, California, and Jenna Yee, age 26 from San Francisco, share a home just off campus with two other roommates from the program.  Working with their roommates and their Life Skills Aid, they manage their budget, schedules,  cook their own meals, and do their own laundry.  Jenna works at a dental office and Gabrielle works for Taft College Childcare.  

This program is a perfect fit for these students.  Ultimately wanting her Early Childhood Education certificate, Gabrielle says, “My goal is to work in a classroom as a teacher’s aide.”

Not only does this program help its students achieve their individualized goals, but it helps their families also.  “I can see how if a parent has a child at the TIL program, it transforms not just the student, but the families too,” says Dr. Dena D. Maloney, President of Taft College.  “It creates skills and a pathway for their children to live independently.”

The Williams’ family has seen how much this program has benefitted their entire family.  Since their son Morgen began the program, they enjoy watching him become more independent and confident; and they know he is in a safe environment learning what he needs to learn to be successful.

“Five years ago if you told me that Morgen would be living in a house (not mine) with two other people I would have never believed it.  He feels better about himself and what he can do,” says his mother Pam.  “Morgen has a lot of things that he can contribute to the world and TIL has and will help him do that.”

This program has become an educational model with international accolades.  TIL managers and participants have had the opportunity to share their unique program’s success with people from London, Korea, and Hong Kong.  With funding from Taft Rotary, John Dodson, vocational specialist for the TIL program, recently represented the program at a 4-week group study exchange to Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

“This program is a great opportunity for the college to help other colleges learn how to do this,” says Maloney.  “It’s a model for teaching faculty to develop similar types of programs at their campuses.  We are spreading our knowledge internationally.”

For more information on the TIL program, please visit ; For more information on autism, please visit, ;

On the Job Training with TIL Students

When students enter the TIL program at Taft College, not only will they attend classes and learn independent living skills, but they will also be placed in a job that fits their abilities.  If the students don’t have a career path already chosen, they participate in a full vocational assessment to determine their job placement.

“We encourage students to work in four different types of jobs to help them find their field of interest,” says Jeff Ross, director of student support services at Taft College.   “But, most importantly, we teach them work ethics.”

Working for local companies, TIL students learn another level of independence as they have to keep their schedules, work hard, and are responsible for their own transportation to and from work.  “Hiring a TIL student is also an educational experience for the employer,” Ross says. “They learn that these employees are hard working, and when they get a job, they tend to stay, so they won’t have to retrain a new employee.”

The businesses of Taft have been welcoming and helpful to the TIL students.  Some of the major employers of TIL students include Kmart, Dollar General, Little Caesars, Dominoes, Taft College Childcare Center, and many more.   

“The various companies and businesses within the community of Taft that regularly employ them have high praise for their work ethic, accountability, and job performance,” says Sheri Horn-Bunk, executive director of the Taft College Foundation.

TIL’s New State of the Art Facility

The TIL program’s new, permanent home is currently under construction at Taft College with a scheduled opening in Spring 2013.  This new building will be a state of the art independent living teaching facility featuring an instructional kitchen, 32 living classrooms, a recreation center, lab and classroom facilities, and much more.

The demand for this type of program is growing.  The first year of TIL, they started with 14 students, the second year it increased to 25 students.  “It just snowballed, to now we have 52 students,” says Jeff Ross, director of student support services at Taft College.

The students who attend the TIL program have intellectual disabilities, and of them, 45 percent have been diagnosed with autism.  Ross says, “With the tsunami of autism in this country, we’ve had to expand and increase our program.”  According to recent data from Autism Speaks, autism spectrum disorders affect one in 88 people, and these prevalence figures are growing. 

“As the TIL Program has grown, so has their need for additional space to meet the various needs of their educational program offerings,” says Sheri Horn-Bunk, executive director of the Taft College Foundation.  “The TIL Building Complex is a state of the art facility designed to meet the specific needs of this specialized education.”

The majority of this project’s funding comes from Measure A, a bond passed by voters in 2004 in the West Kern Community College District.  According to Horn-Bunk, this $14.5 million project still needs about $2.5 million more for completion.

“This beautiful facility will help maximize the program and bring it under one roof,” says Dr. Dena D. Maloney, President of Taft College.  “Once TIL settles into their new instructional space, we will find that there is more we can do with our curriculum.  We can expand our outreach to other institutions that want to learn about this type of program.” 

Passionate about this program, under Horn-Bunk’s direction, a capital campaign called, “Raising the Barn:  It takes a community,” helps to raise money to finish this endeavor.  To donate, you can call Horn-Bunk at 661-763-7936.

Facts about Autism: Did you know...

Autism now affects 1 in 88 children and 1 in 54 boys

Autism prevalence figures are growing

More children will be diagnosed with autism this year than with AIDS, diabetes & cancer combined

Autism is the fastest-growing serious developmental disability in the U.S.

Autism costs the nation $137 billion per year

Autism receives less than 5% of the research funding of many less prevalent childhood diseases

Boys are four times more likely than girls to have autism

There is no medical detection or cure for autism

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Tags: Education, Featured Story, Special Needs

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