US volunteers and Pacer Center inspire girls to see beyond disabilities

IBM volunteers at the PACER Center have helped girls with disabilities
IBM volunteers at the PACER Center have helped girls with disabilities
envision careers in technology (from left to right: Tracy Schramm, Diane
Ingersoll, Kyle Gilbertson, Todd Murray, Rob Have, Karen Newman, Siv
Wahlstrom).
The mission of the PACER Center (Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights) in the United States is to expand opportunities and enhance the quality of life of children and young adults with disabilities, and their families. Founded in 1977 in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, PACER Center was created by parents of children and youth with disabilities to help other parents and families facing similar challenges. The center is staffed primarily by parents of children with disabilities and works in coalition with 18 disability organizations.

IBM began working with the center more than 15 years ago, collaborating to provide activities related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to middle school students in the area. Heidi Kraemer, an IBM manager for Corporate Citizenship and Corporate Affairs says, "When the opportunity came to have an EX.I.T.E. camp at PACER, the organization jumped because these opportunities typically elude girls with disabilities" says Heidi.

EX.I.T.E. (Exploring Interests in Technology and Engineering) is designed to encourage middle school girls to consider a career in STEM, to improve team building skills, and to provide an opportunity to mentor with women and persons with disabilities who are technical professionals.

According to Heidi, IBM provides hands-on activities and volunteers to run the sessions. Pacer provides the program management and coordination, and often hosts the sessions at their facilities. The team has used several IBM activity kits, including Puppy Palace, Hello Watson, and TryScience’s Balloon Car.

Karen Newman, an IBM executive consultant, has spent years helping coordinate IBM volunteers for EX.I.T.E., though she knew about PACER from personal experience.

"I became acquainted with PACER fifteen years ago when one of my children was diagnosed with a complex learning disability. Pacer Center provided the information, resources and support that enabled me to become an effective advocate for my child."

Some of the IBMers that Karen recruits for EX.I.T.E. include a group of Persons with Disabilities (PwD) from IBM Rochester. The PwDs serve as mentors and teachers during the camp, but more importantly, they serve as inspiration.

"We want the girls to see people with disabilities who are successful in the industry, and the PwD group in Rochester jumped at the chance to participate. The Rochester team members are the most powerful role models for these girls," says Karen.

You can do it, so can I!

Through the IBM and PACER partnership, these children meet many other students with similar disabilities, and are matched with IBM volunteers who also have a disability. These volunteers are positive career and life role models for the students. Some volunteers share their personal experiences with the students about being a person with disabilities and the challenges they faced and overcame.

According to Karen, "One of the IBM volunteers was especially inspiring as he talked about how he reached his dream of working with computers and the challenges he faced throughout his life living with a disability. He inspired all audiences as he talked about his personal story and how he continued to work hard, sometimes harder than others, to reach his goals and dreams."

Tracy Schramm, a critical resolutions manager at IBM, is another member of the PwD group from Rochester who routinely makes the trip and volunteers for EX.I.T.E. in the Twin Cities.

"I am a wheelchair user myself and, there was one time, a little gal in a power wheelchair walked over to me and said that she always thought there was 'no way' she could ever go to college because of her big wheelchair. Then she smiled and said, 'You went to college. You have a great job at IBM! If you can do it, I can too!' It was one of those small moments that I've never forgotten because at that moment that little gal realized that just because she was in a wheelchair didn't mean that she had to hold back on her dreams," says Tracy.

She continues, "I love seeing the girls' eyes light up when they realize they've got more skills, possibilities and options than they ever imagined! I truly believe that education is the key for girls with disabilities, and they've got great ideas that can change and impact our world for the better. A disability shouldn't stop them from dreaming big, and it's been an honor for me to have played a small part in helping them realize that."

Others get EX.I.T.Ed

Parents of these children continue to be amazed how the experience changes the way the students feel about their disability and gives the girls great hope for their future.

To date, there have been over 300 "graduates" of the STEM programming with PACER. Of those that responded a PACER survey, 90% say the camp provided them the insight to pursue a career in a STEM-related field.

The EX.I.T.E camp has evolved over the years. In December of 2010, after originally starting with each day of the five day camp hosted and staffed by IBM volunteers, the PACER Center staff contacted other local technology corporations—including Medtronic, Target, and 3M—to see about potential collaborations for the camp, in addition to support already received from IBM. Today, several companies have agreed to lead at least one of the camp days, extending the opportunity to experience unique skills and many career options for the girls.

Karen says, "There is no telling what might inspire a young person's career choice, but I hope that these hands-on experiences with science, technology, engineering and math open their eyes to the possibilities."

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