The Houston Community College (HCC) VAST Academy enrolls nearly 200 students a year at three campus locations, and helps them develop skills and confidence for meaningful employment and independence.

Of the 4,000 students who have completed the program since it opened in 1990, 75-percent successfully completed a career-readiness certificate and 65-percent fund employment. Approximately 15-percent went on to enroll in college credit programs.

So successful is the program that it won the 2016 National Exemplary Program Award in the category of Community Services & Personal Enrichment from the National Council for Continuing Education and Training (NCCET).

Now, it is the program of choice for individuals with intellectual disabilities as the best option for developing skills that assure a bright future.

VAST is an acronym for Vocational Advancement and Skills Training. The VAST Academy is a program inside the HCC School of Continuing Education which provides post-secondary transition training and comprehensive support services which lead to meaningful credentials, employment and independence.

No one has more enthusiasm for the program than its founding director, Sue Moraska.

“Our motto is ‘Employment + Education = Independence,’” said Moraska. “That’s our goal. Students are not going to be independent until they have competitive employment.”

Consequently, VAST Academy staff and instructors work closely with each student, getting to know the student’s interests, talents, and aptitudes.

“During our two-to-three years with them, we help students find out what skills they have,” added Moraska. “We help them discover what interests they have, and what they are good at doing.”

The program’s Workforce Readiness Certificate includes instruction in job skills, social skills, computer literacy, financial literacy, and work-related math skills.

Then, equipped with the knowledge and skills to be successful on a worksite, students are often placed in internship positions within area companies.

“Most of our students want an internship when they finish the program,” said Moraska. “Hopefully, an internship will lead to employment, if not at the job site, then at another similar place. An internship looks good on a resume and the experience gives students confidence, and shows employers what they can accomplish.”

An internship is considered a critical component of a student’s readiness because, without it, most have no employment experience.

“So it is important that we place them in internships whenever possible,” Moraska explained. “We want to help them go as far as they can go and achieve their dreams. We try to place them in areas that interest them: in medical, childcare, culinary, customer service, hospitality, dining services, or retail. They do better and enjoy more the internships that line up with their passions. Some like animals. Others like working with children, or food service. Placing them where they enjoy the work increases the likelihood of success and a long-term working relationship.”

Internships are possible, Moraska is quick to point out, because of more than 80 employee partnerships the academy has developed over the years. These partners utilize HCC VAST Academy students as interns and hire them frequently.

“In any given semester, we may have 10-to-20 students in internships,” she said. “We had 15 students placed during the fall semester, and already have internships lined up for 12 in the spring.”

The list is long, but Moraska is proud of each partnering company. She sites M.D. Anderson Hospital for placing VAST interns in its dining services area and Human Resources office. Phoenicia Deli hired two students after an internship.

Other big names that work with the program: TIRR (The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research), Texas Children’s Hospital, Arena Energy, the Hampton Inn-Downtown, Laredo Energy, Spring Branch Independent School District, the Rice School, and the Homeland Security Agency.

Besides providing internships, many partners also serve on the program’s advisory committee and contribute funds to strengthen and grow the VAST Academy.

Interns work 200 hours over a 13-week period. Most are usually on the jobsite Monday through Thursday.

“Internships are a major reasons why VAST is so successful,”said  Moraska. “An internship gives a student self-confidence. It helps get them ready to competitive employment, live independently, and be in charge of their own futures.”