Arlington PEP students striding confidently toward the future

Erica Fuentes-Sosa delivers remarks at the Program for Employment Preparedness (PEP) graduation, held June 12, 2019, at Arlington Career Center. PEP paraprofessional Dalis Williams provides translation services.

When Erica Fuentes-Sosa transitioned into Arlington Public Schools’ “PEP” (Program for Employment Preparedness) program four years ago, it was not the best time in her life.

“I was failing classes and had no motivation for school,” she recalled.

But as a member of the PEP program, “I allowed myself to open up, I became more approachable and comfortable,” Fuentes-Sosa said. “The staff at PEP were very understanding. It has been an amazing journey.”

Fuentes-Sosa and a dozen others were honored June 12 during PEP’s annual transition ceremony, marking their departure from the county school system and into the broader community.

The students, who have a range of disabilities of varying degrees, “are being celebrated for who they are and for every success they’ve had along the way,” said Micah Stein-Verbit, coordinator of the program, which is based at the Arlington Career Center.

While the students have a variety of indvidiual skills and goals, the PEP program worked to provide them with a bedrock of support focused on living independent lives. They participated in internships and public-speaking programs, learned money-management skills, took field trips and navigated confusing public-transit systems, and garnered experience in decision-making and self-advocacy.

“It is going to be the beginning of their next chapter,” Arlington Career Center principal Margaret Chung said as the students – clad in purple caps and gowns – gathered for the ceremony.

County Board Vice Chairman Libby Garvey, who previously served on the School Board, said the program provided students with skills needed to succeed.

“You’re ready for the next step – we know you’re ready,” she said.

Garvey reminded students that they did not get to this point on their own.

“The other people that need a big hand are the parents and the adult supporters, and also all the teachers and the staff,” she said.

This was the fifth annual transition ceremony. A number of previous participants returned for the event; among them was Nicholas Jones.

He told students that they likely will experience difficulties as they move into the next phase of their lives, but should not fear what is thrown at them.

“The floor falls out and you feel like you’re drowning,” Jones said of the experience many young adults face. “But it’s also about freedom – freedom to chart your own course and take control. Embrace the fear and the control, both.”

Jones’s family has endowed a scholarship fund to support PEP students in future educational endeavors. In addition to Fuentes-Sosa, funding went to Raul Ayala-Carranza, Jason Contreras and Emelio Razo-Cardozo.

Additional students participating in the ceremony included Emmanuel Alvarez, Jasper Boyd, Marlena Carroll, William “Owen” Connally, Alex Heil, Kendall Lundgren, Austin Rojas, Ambar Salcedo-Moreno and Kahder Smith.

Fuentes-Sosa said that, for the Class of 2019, the program had achieved its mission, giving students the tools to make their way in the world.

“Wherever our future takes us, we are better prepared and we are resilient,” she said.

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