High school graduation can be an exciting and scary time for young adults. Those feelings are shared by, and often amplified for, young adults with disabilities.

Graduation or turning 21, whichever happens last, marks the end of Free Appropriate Public Education for those with disabilities.

What You Need To Know

  • Graduation marks the end of Free Appropriate Public Education for those with disabilities

  • Services for adults with disabilities are short staffed due to COVID-19, adding more uncertainty

  • Wildwood School has a 100% transition success rate

Cameron Heeps was diagnosed with autism when he was 20 months old. His mom Becky says she explored nearly every educational option Cameron: in-home therapy, BOCES, special education in public school.

When he was 8 years old, they found a perfect fit in Wildwood School.

“When you have staff who you know appreciates your child the way you do, it matters,” says Becky.

Fast forward to present day, and Cam and his 14 classmates will soon leave behind the structure and acceptance Wildwood's Young Adult Program provides.

As the transition specialist, Lauren Reynolds helps figure out their next step. Often it's a day habilitation, Without Walls or a vocational program.

"Typically, they would graduate and then start their next program the following week. None of our students are going to be able to do that this year because of COVID,” says Reynolds.

Pre-pandemic, Wildwood had a 100% transition success rate.

"Knowing that the statistic is something Wildwood has always been able to maintain, I feel very concerned for our students and anxious for their families,” says Reynolds.

Reynolds says once agencies are fully staffed, hopefully this summer, they will be admitting at full capacity again.

Even in typical times without the delay caused by the pandemic, families like Cameron's not only have to decide which path to take, they have to apply and be accepted. The Heeps are hoping Cameron gets in to a Without Walls program, allowing him to learn and contribute to his community.

"If this doesn't work out with the program we're looking at, we're kind of on our own, which is scary,” says Becky.

A mom to 25-year-old Jude, Tracie Killar remembers that feeling. Jude has Down syndrome. He graduated Wildwood five years ago.

"Life after Wildwood can be a little scary because Wildwood really offers parents a families a circle of support,” says Killar.

The school’s young adult program prepares people with disabilities to be as independent as possible as they make the transition from an educational setting to the real world.

When Jude left behind the routine, the friends and the purpose he built at Wildwood, he and his mom had no idea what challenges they were up against. But just as before, armed with the skills he learned at Wildwood, Jude faced fears and went on to earn a degree at Hudson Valley Community College.

"I felt more confident that I grew up and just having that experience was like my life moving for me,” says Jude.

The Killars still meet annually with the staff from Wildwood.

"I know if I needed anything I could call Wildwood and say ‘where do I go from here?’ " said Tracie.

It was that support from staff at Wildwood that helped Jude find a job at the Special Olympics last year.

"Just being able to work at a place that I put all my soul into, it's just a really great experience,” says Jude.

Jude loves what he does and he's really good at it. He's collaborating on marketing projects and he's making his voice heard as the athlete liaison.

"These are our champions and this is the next generation and we have to give them a shot; it’s a shot that they deserve and they come through, right? We couldn't be more proud of Jude and the work he's doing for Special Olympics New York,” says Robyn Armando, vice president of marketing and branding at the Special Olympics.

Jude shares his story with other young adults with disabilities, hoping his success will serve as a motivator to embrace the uncomfortable and inevitable change that comes with graduating.

"If you are nervous, I understand,” says Jude. “I go through that, too."