HUNTINGTON - Local high school students with disabilities are learning about and developing self-advocacy and self-awareness skills throughout the month of June through classes provided by the Mountain State Centers for Independent Living in partnership with the West Virginia Division of Rehabilitation Services.

This week, students from Lincoln County, Spring Valley, Cabell Midland and Huntington high schools are taking classes at the Centers' Huntington location, while other classes are taking place in Beckley as well, said Annie Weeks, president and CEO of Mountain State Centers for Independent Living.

Classes involve four-day training from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and feature activities and lessons on the history of the disability movement, understanding rights, responsibilities and individual education plans, developing confidence and communication skills, and evaluating future needs and plans.

"I think it is critical for students to have these opportunities to learn about self-advocacy," Weeks said - not only so they can develop skills for the future, but also so they have necessary information regarding their present experiences in school.

For example, Weeks said, many students and parents do not realize they can attend meetings for individual education plans in the school system.

"Most students definitely do not know they have the right to be involved in these meetings," Weeks said. "One of the most positive aspects of this program is helping students learn about their own rights, which can lead them to being much more successful in school."

Participating students are also paid a stipend equal to a $15-an-hour salary, Weeks said, to make the classes more like a genuine work experience, because part of the program's goals are to help students learn about going to work on time, not using their phones while working and various other employment-based responsibilities.

"We are paying them a stipend for being here so they can get a check at the end of the week just like all of us do for our employment and hard work," Weeks said.

There are also plans to possibly continue the program throughout the school year and expand it to more counties, Weeks said.

"I think it's a wonderful program," she said. "Hopefully we can work something out with the boards of education to make sure these students have the knowledge they need to be prepared for college and to transition into jobs after school."

Those interested in Huntington classes can contact Georgetta Stevens, vice president, by email at gstevens@mtstcil.org or call 304-525-3324.

Those interested in Beckley classes can contact Ken Harer, employment services specialist, by email at kharer@mtstcil.org or call 304-255-0122.

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