Reconnecting in D.C.

Washington DC

March was a busy travel month for PolicyWorks staff.  We hosted two events in New York City and one in Boston for Lights! Camera! Access! 2.0, but the core of our travel was to re-connect with partners and colleagues in D.C.

We are very fortunate to have strong relationships with national disability leaders and organizations. We focused on discussion of our Peer Mentoring and WINTAC work and discussed with individuals and groups their ideas about how PolicyWorks could strengthen and move their programs forward as appropriate explored future potential partnerships.

Our visits took us to meet with –

  • Camille Ortiz, Commissioner, Office of Disabilities, Health and Human Services (HHS)
  • Jerry Elliott, Rehabilitation Services Administration
  • Bob William, Administration on Community Living (ACL)
  • Michael Murray and the team from the National Institute On Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research, NIDILRR
  • Michael Morris and Elizabeth Jennings, National Disability Institute
  • Curtis Richards, Institute on Educational Leadership
  • Andy Imparato, American Association of University Centers on Disability
  • Paula Viellet, My Employment Options

We also met with current and former board members in the DC area, including Rayna Aylward, Kristen Willard and Jeanne Argoff.

Our thanks to all our partners and colleagues. These meetings helped us understand the current environment, the possibilities and unmet needs in the disability community. Thank you for helping us move our current programs forward and explore initiating new ones.

Lights! Camera! Access! 2.0

PolicyWorks values partnerships with other agencies who share our mission and values. One of our most valued partners is Tari Hartman Squire and EINSOF Communications. This partnership focuses on working together on the Lights! Camera! Assess! 2.0 Summits. The Summits bring together youth with disabilities who have an interest in careers in front of or behind the camera in TV, Film, Interactive Media and Advertising — together with industry employers and potential mentors.

Each Summit recruits young people with disabilities in a geographic area; however, events are also advertised nationally. The event brings together employers in these industries to do an opening panel on the challenges and opportunities in this field and then divide the youth into three groups. One group will begin with the flash mentoring and resume reviews, the second will go to a workshop with Derek Shields – a representative of the National Disability Mentoring Coalition — that focuses on networking and the value of mentors.  PolicyWorks’ Barbara Butz does a concurrent workshop on issues related to disclosure and seeing your disability as a competitive advantage.

Summits are developed in communities across the nation with the help of local organizing committees and sponsors.

The goals of the Summits are to:

  • Increase employment of people with disabilities in front of and behind the camera;
  • Improve disability portrayals;
  • Enhance access to media with captions and audio descriptions.

Upcoming Events:

NYC – April 11

Chicago – July 31

Boston – TBA

CollaborationWorks Driving Partnerships

CollaborationWorks is a vehicle PolicyWorks has used over the last ten years to create collaborative partnerships with other organizations to move forward work we all care about.  We currently are using this vehicle to work with Florida Atlantic University’s Stand Among Friends and Autism After 21.

As we progress in our work with WINTAC, we needed a learning platform to allow national access to the training products developed under this grant.

Through our partnership, PolicyWorks was able to develop a relationship with Blackboard Collaborative and the “Moodle Room” for organizational training and education programs. The WINTAC grant provides the platform to house the PolicyWorks Peer MentoringWorks curriculum along with other courses taught by Autism After 21 and Stand Among Friends.

Blackboard Collaborate/Moodle Room staff who have worked with us have taken a unique interest in Policy Works’ “Collaboration Works,”  focusing on the development of multiple online educational training for programs for people with disabilities. 

Blackboard Learn is a virtual learning environment and course management system developed by Blackboard Inc. It is a Web-based server software which features course management, customizable open architecture, and scalable design that allows integration with student information systems and authentication protocols.  This gateway has allowed Policy Works to develop and execute online training throughout Florida, Alaska, Iowa and Mississippi.

Through the development of “Collaboration Works,” Blackboard has become aware of an untapped educational market space, special education for students with disabilities.  As a result, Blackboard Collaborate/Moodle Room is developing a story about “Collaboration Works” to be featured in its “ELearn” magazine.

Stay tuned for our story in “ELearn” Magazine.

Staff Profiles – Ciara and Nicona


Ciara Calsita

Ciara Calsita joined the PolicyWorks team in 2010, and Nicona MacDonald joined the PolicyWorks team in 2012. Since then, they have been working together with other team members, University faculty, Vocational Rehabilitation professionals, and Workforce Development field staff on various projects centered on Peer Mentoring.


Nicona Keysaw

Both started their work independently as Peer Mentors working miles apart in their respective locations of Southern and Northern California. In July 2014, Ciara and Nicona joined forces when they accepted a shared position as Placement Specialist working with multiple universities piloting a Peer Mentoring component of the “Professional Development and Disability” course offered at University of California Berkeley, San Diego State University, and California State University of Fullerton.

During this time, they oversaw a team of Peer Mentors and conducted regular site visits to present in classrooms about the power, purpose, and the proven success of Peer Mentoring. They met with students one-on-one and supplied a steady stream of internships and part-time vocational opportunities to provide to our students. Working with university faculty to collect data via pre-course and post-course surveys, kept tabs on students’ progress and provided encouragement and support in developing our students’ career readiness. Students reported higher levels of confidence, felt more prepared to enter their chosen career field and were more likely to pursue and obtain internships and employment opportunity that would ultimately help them build their dream career.

In 2016, Ciara and Nicona accepted a position as Program Development Specialist to work collaboratively with PolicyWorks’ partnership with the Workforce Innovation Technical Assistance Center (WINTAC) on the development of a peer mentoring pilot program to be used as a strategy to support the implementation of the WIOA on specific areas of Pre-Employment Transition Services (Pre-ETS). Ciara and Nicona have customized the curriculum of the peer mentoring course to the individual state needs of several states; this includes Alaska, Florida, Mississippi, and will soon collaborate with Iowa. Each state has applied our peer mentoring program to their state different from the other. Our first state model in Alaska was designed to work in conjunction with their summer youth program and included an additional piece of webinar. In Florida, our peer mentoring curriculum is used to train vendors to become peer mentoring providers. Mississippi’s model will include components not only found in our curriculum but will include information taken from our PMW Coordinator and Mentor Handbooks we developed.

Job-sharing has become the norm for Ciara and Nicona, where it has allowed them to individually pursue their own life and career goals in addition to being a part of the PolicyWorks team. Ciara has been able to pursue higher education and is currently enrolled in her last year of her Vocational Rehabilitation Counseling Program through San Diego State University (SDSU). Additionally, Ciara joined Department of Rehabilitation (DOR) last year as a Graduate Student Assistant (GSA). Nicona has held several positions in addition to her position with PolicyWorks; she previously worked as a Benefits Counselor for DOR and currently works as a Freshman Admissions Reviewer for UC Santa Cruz. Nicona also has the most important role of all as a mother of a 2-year-old boy, with a baby girl coming soon. Both Ciara and Nicona are active in their respective local communities. Ciara serves as a Commissioner for the City of Long Beach’s Citizens Advisory Commission on Disabilities. Nicona is a Committee Member for her local transit district’s Advisory Committee and for Santa Cruz County Commission on Disabilities. Ciara and Nicona’s commitment to their shared position is driven by the first-hand experience on the value of peer mentoring and its impact to change and improve the lives of youth.

Welcoming New Board Member Roderick D. Reed


Rod is currently a consultant providing direction in strategic/financial planning, market/capitalization acquisition, staff recruitment/motivation and operations for the aquaculture industry and small/intermediate businesses. He has served as CEO, CFO, and COO of financial institutions, multistate rental companies, research/ development and commercial production companies and has experience in executive search and career advancement services as well as headmaster of a private educational school. Experience consists of regional, national and internationally dispersed corporations with recent emphasis on Caribbean and Central America.

Rod graduated from Southern Methodist University with a degree in chemistry and Master of Business Administration from the University of Arkansas.



Welcoming New Board Member Ann Wai-Yee Kwong

My personal experience with self-advocacy coupled with my professional passion around diversity and inclusion further solidified my aspiration in ending the vicious cycle of low expectations and lack of achievement around the disability community and assist students with disabilities in reaching their fullest potential while realizing their vision as I continue on my personal journey pursuing a Ph.D. in Education at the University of California Santa Barbara. Engaging with employers on best practices to better source and attract young talent with disabilities, shifting the culture around disability, and influencing policy can culminate in maximum impact and innovative solutions.

I recognize the need for efforts to change the negative climate of low expectations toward students with disabilities. I observed that many students who are placed in special education have low self-esteem and lack confidence, resulting in the vicious cycle of low societal expectations in my roles as Transition Program Specialist at the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired as well as research consultant and advisory committee member for both nonprofits and government agencies; this is tightly linked to expectations placed upon the student from their family, teachers, and the broader society. Subsequently, several colleagues and I sprang into action and created “Survive or Thrive (SOT)”, an experienced-based mentoring program and support group by and for youth with disabilities and their families. During my leisure time, I enjoy organizing workshops to promote access and distribute information and serving as a mentor which allows youth with disabilities to have a guide they can turn to for advice in navigating post-high school options.

I hope to expand my work with students and families and to use my experience as an avenue for identification of effective educational practices and eventual policy adjustments. I am eager to passionately commit to engaging in critical research with disadvantaged transition age youth and direct future policy reforms to support family involvement and incorporate culturally responsive strategies as part of workforce development. It is an honor and pleasure to be invited to join the PolicyWorks Board and contribute my experience as well as learn from other members; I look forward to expanding the mission and promoting the rights of individuals with disabilities to live and contribute in their counties together!



President’s Message – Winter 2018

Barbara Butz, President

Barbara Butz, President PolicyWorks

It has been a great beginning to 2018! We have trained 119 Florida Vocational Rehabilitation Community Service Providers to implement the statewide rollout of Peer Mentoring Services in Florida in the month of January.

We are also working with partners in California to explore the development of a peer mentoring program that would be aligned with the California Youth Leadership program.

In total, we now have four states engaged in the WINTAC Peer Mentoring Pilot Program – Alaska, Mississippi, Iowa Blind, and Florida.

Our work with Lights! Camera! Access! 2.0 continues to grow and development a national presence. 2018 events include sessions in New York City, Boston, and Washington D.C. this spring. Later sessions will include Chicago and Los Angeles. Preliminary discussions are also being held with Disney World in Orlando.
Our partner, Tari Hartman Squire, continues to lead this national initiative — bringing young people interested in careers in film, TV, Interactive Media, and Advertising to key sites for one day Summits that connect youth to industry professionals and workshops related to networking and job search issues.

Last, but certainly not least, our College to Career program continues to thrive in Florida with the partnership of Stand Among Friends at Florida Atlantic University.
Florida Atlantic, Beacon College, University Central Florida, and University of South Florida at St. Petersburg are all working on developing their models for their campus. Currently the Professional Development and Disability course is being taught at eight universities in three states – Florida, California, and New Jersey. Discussions are underway with Minnesota to help them jump start a program sometime in 2018-19.

We thank all of our partners for their contribution in the success of these programs.

Barbara A. Butz

Renzo Burga: Peer Mentoring in Action


Being a Peer Mentor for PolicyWorks has taught me to become more than just a leader. I’ve gained responsibility in making sure that I meet my mentee’s needs by realizing where I am able to serve as a resource towards others based on my own personal experiences. By taking initiative to provide possible solutions to their problems, I have been able to help mentees as they pursue their career and/or educational goals.

In addition to my Peer Mentoring experiences, I’ve also used my technical expertise to assist our participants with projects like setting up iPads for educational purposes. I also have assisted in the implementation of our online Peer Mentoring Works Course by translating our course content into Spanish and supporting other technical areas as needed. I look forward to continue making a positive impact on others in a way where I can influence my mentee’s potential future success.

Additionally, I have recently expanded my work as a Peer Mentor with Brillico, a Ft. Lauderdale Vocational Rehabilitation Provider.


Renzo Burga, Peer Mentor

PolicyWorks Collaborates with AbiliTrek

AbiliTrek Logo

PolicyWorks is now working with AbiliTrek, a startup created by former board member Daman Wandke. AbiliTrek is preparing to launch a Yelp-like review service for people with disabilities to rate and review the accessibility of any public place. They understand the needs of people with disabilities and making more information accessible when it comes to IT. AbiliTrek is now helping PolicyWorks produce a quarterly newsletter to keep members of the PolicyWorks community more informed on what we are doing. Additionally, AbiliTrek is helping PolicyWorks keep their social media updated frequently.

For more information on AbiliTrek please visit

Daman Wandke, Founder & CEO, AbiliTrek



PeerMentoringWorks – Online Course

We are excited to share that in 2018, our Peer Mentoring program is growing and expanding in many directions. Last year, we were busy working out the kinks and developing the finished product of our very first state-customized course. We created a polished, user-friendly course and made it available through BlackBoard Collaborative’s Moodle Room as a way to train and educate Peer Mentors, Mentor Coordinators, and other VR professionals on the background, guidelines, and techniques needed to deliver mentoring services in their respective states. Upon completion of the course, participants receive certification based on their achievements.

Once our curriculum gained its foundation, we quickly began adding new elements and tools to our “Moodle Room” – the online platform that hosts our PeerMentoringWorks Online course. Each of our “PMW” courses have been customized with our pilot states in mind. We continue to collaborate with VR leaders across the United States to customize our curriculum to meet individual States’ needs. For instance, for PeerMentoringWorks Online – Alaska, our curriculum needed to work in conjunction with their summer youth program. Due to limited time and connectivity restraints of some of the Alaska participants, the PolicyWorks team developed a 30-minute webinar with the strongest and most influential elements of our 21-hour online training curriculum. The webinar was used as a tool to provide a quicker, downloadable way of reaching people.

Another pilot state implementing our Peer Mentoring program is Florida, where training is underway to deliver the curriculum statewide. Our courses for Florida include additional versions of the Peer Mentor and Project Coordinator courses translated into Spanish to accommodate their high population of Spanish-speaking participants.

Moving forward, we are currently customizing our Peer Mentoring program for Mississippi and Iowa, with plans of launching programs in both states in 2018. Our Peer Mentoring program has also recently expanded beyond the core course to include add-ons such as handbooks created specifically for Peer Mentor Coordinators, Peer Mentors, and Mentees as a way to share additional tools, resources, and guidance in providing mentoring services to youth. Our team is also working on enhancing our curriculum to incorporate a stronger emphasis on self-advocacy. Our programs remain focused on the influence and power of peer mentoring relationships, and we are committed to making our curriculum adaptable to work for an ever-evolving number of purposes and populations.

By Nicona MacDonald and Ciara Calsita, Placement Specialists with the College to Career Transition Program, PolicyWorks