by Cindy LaJoy, SPED Homeschool Partner True North Homeschool Academy


How does your learner gain job experience and valuable references for future positions? It isn’t as easy today as it used to be for teens to find employment during their high school years.  When most of us were our kids’ ages, jobs were plentiful at fast-food restaurants, grocery stores, and many other retailers.  Many of us worked after school at places where now middle-aged adults are found behind the counter.  In 1993, 30.5% of students enrolled in high school were employed versus today when 18.2% of students have after-school or summer jobs. That is a staggering drop and means that not quite 1/5th of our high school students have any work experience before graduation.


So how do we fill that experience gap?  ​​Volunteering is a wonderful way!!


Kids can volunteer in a wide variety of roles! In our family, we have done volunteering at the local food bank, animal shelter, library, homeless shelter, and nursing home.  Let me share with you some of the benefits our kids have gained from volunteer work:

1)  They have to take direction from an adult supervisor other than mom. They learn they cannot negotiate to get out of something they would prefer not to do. They must do a job to the satisfaction of the supervisor, and they may receive constructive criticism. Many homeschoolers have a great amount of flexibility at home, which is one of the beauties of homeschooling, but that flexibility is not always found on a job.  Learning this can be helpful! Also, when we are young, it can be HARD to take criticism from someone in authority. This can help strengthen our kids to accept and learn to hear a helpful critique from an outsider.

2)  Being around a variety of people helps broaden their worldview.  Volunteer work sites usually expose kids to young, old, and everything in-between!  Some seniors want the structure of having someplace to go, folks who have been court-mandated to be there, and the disabled for whom volunteering is part of their daily program.  Interacting regularly in a safe setting with such a wide range of personalities and life experiences does far more to help your child grasp “real life” than any book or film can do.

3)  There is something special that comes with working alongside adults and keeping up with them! Children gain a sense of accomplishment from doing the same tasks as adults do, and it goes a long way toward encouraging more mature behavior. Add in compliments from those outside the family for a job well done, and you have a recipe for developing a strong sense of self-worth.  

4)  Real business skills are learned “on the job” that can translate well to the world of work!  Volunteer organizations offer the chance to learn things such as inventory management, safe food handling, and product rotation, as well as secretarial tasks such as answering multi-line phones, accounting, and data entry.  Time management, project planning, and more are all practiced in volunteer jobs.  Our kids learned all of these skills by volunteering, as well as career-specific skills like library science and animal husbandry.

5)  Volunteering allows youth to “try on” a career to see if it “fits”!  There is nothing worse than spending money to learn a trade or gain a certification, only to realize you absolutely hate it after being hired.  Offering services free of charge often helps a learner gain entry to a setting to test the waters, and learn more before making an educational and financial commitment to a particular career.

6)  In many settings, volunteering can be a very humbling experience.  Handing food to those who don’t have enough to make it through the week or sitting down to a meal at a table full of homeless men and women or holding hands bedside with an elderly person who is desperately lonely can all bring about new awareness and a sense of gratitude to a teen who can often be caught up in their little world. Humility is not something that many of us think about developing in our children, yet it is a quality most of us wish more people in the world had today. Volunteering can bring us a new understanding of those less fortunate, and help keep us from demonizing them or putting them all in one category in our minds.  

7)  The website offers this as food for thought:  Volunteering offers vital help to people in need, worthwhile causes, and the community, but the benefits can be even greater for you, the volunteer. Volunteering and helping others can help you reduce stress, combat depression, keep you mentally stimulated, and provide a sense of purpose. In other words, we feel better when we help others.  Teaching your kids how reaching out to those around them can also change THEIR lives for the better!

8)  Though I prefer better motives for volunteering than this last item, I recognize the truth to it and it is still a benefit. I would encourage you to consider adding volunteering for other, less self-centered reasons.  Steady volunteer work with one or two organizations can be a terrific addition to a college application or a job reference for those first forays into employment.  A volunteer supervisor can attest to a young person’s diligence, responsible behavior, and skill level in certain tasks.  In other words, they can offer the next best thing to a job reference when someone doesn’t yet have prior employment.  


There are many more benefits to be gained from volunteer work, and including volunteerism as part of your homeschool day can be life-changing in so many wonderful ways!


Cindy LaJoy is a Special Needs Academic Advisor and Educator at True North Homeschool Academy, runs Blue Collar Homeschool, and recently co-authored, Blazing New Homeschool Trails, with Natalie Vecchione.




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SPED Homeschool Team

How do families find community while homeschooling? Sometimes, finding our extended network of friends comes easily. And sometimes, it’s a challenge. Every month we ask our SPED Homeschool team to share their own experiences navigating through the highs – and lows – of homeschooling. We live in different places with children that are different ages, have different diagnoses, and different interests. And the way we find community is also different.


Finding Our Foundation by Cammie Arn

Building community around here starts with our church and finishes with our homeschool community. 

We began this journey as a military family and moved frequently so finding community was hard because it takes time to build relationships with others. Once we separated from the military, it became easier. Having eight children over a twenty-year span has given my family countless opportunities to plug into different groups and organizations. I have been a ballroom dance mom, a theater mom, a choir mom, a speech and debate mom, a Taekwondo mom, a soccer mom, a baseball mom, and a ministry mom. While involved in all these different activities, we were able to find community based on both faith and common interests.

I find the biggest key to building a community for our family started with being willing to meet someone else’s needs first. That is where community truly begins. 


Encouraged by Co-Op by Dawn Spence

One thing that I learned early on in homeschooling is that we needed a community. I wanted to walk along those with similar goals and those who could celebrate the good times and pray for me in the bad times. Having these meaningful connections is one way I take care of myself emotionally and physically. Our homeschooling community included our co-op. They were amazing as they embraced my daughter with special needs. That was important for us because whatever we choose to do, it would have to fit everyone. Through co-op, we found friends that have a big part in our community. While our co-op has not met yet this year, our community of homeschooling friends has been a source of constant encouragement. This journey for our family needs and thrives on our community.


Small but Substantial by Lara Lee

It is hard to be involved in everything, but the few groups we are committed to have helped all of us have relationships in a way that is not overwhelming. Even though we are part of the Texas Homeschool Coalition, sometimes therapy schedules and medical appointments make it difficult to attend activities to meet other parents. While we share an interest in homeschooling, I often end up feeling down over the fact that my special needs child is not able to do what other children can do. I end up feeling pressure, discontentment, or that we are behind. I stay in touch with the organization for ideas and resources, but we find our community in other places.

For us, our homeschool communities have come from the various therapies and outside interests my son has. We were able to find therapeutic horseback riding that works with a sliding pay scale. The horses helped my son in so many ways, and we were also to have a group of friends with diverse needs who share this same interest in horseback riding. My son can succeed and even compete at this. 

We also have a great church community with a few homeschoolers. The church has provided support, adoptive grandparents, and friends of all ages.


Starting Over Again by Peggy Ployhar

Since we have lived in many places over our 18 years of homeschooling, we have had to build, and rebuild, our homeschooling community. From living in the suburbs surrounded by fellow homeschoolers, to dealing with weather and small-town cultural issues that kept us rather isolated, to being transient as we lived and homeschooled in our RV twice, we found that adapting how we found and created community was different, but nonetheless rewarding for our efforts. In the times of plenty, we chose wisely which groups and activities we should participate in. In times of scarcity, we relished the few friendships God allowed us to entertain and the diversity of community and cultural experiences we enjoyed with those who allowed us to come into their lives. And, in the times when we didn’t have a distinct place to put down our roots for too long, we enjoyed the community of our family and the new experiences and discoveries we were allowed to experience together. We have learned that community is what you make of the relationships you have right in front of you, instead of letting them slip through your fingers in the pursuit of something better, more typical, or what you had envisioned.






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By Peggy Ployhar

When our family started our homeschooling journey it was because of the needs of my oldest child. In no way was I prepared or equipped to handle teaching my son who was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome only the month prior, nor did I fully understand how severe his depression was, but I knew in my heart keeping him home to learn would keep my son from slipping any further away from me than he already had in his 8 months while attending private school.

Watch our story here.

This journey started 17 years ago for our family and through it, our entire family has dramatically changed. I would say for the better. Homeschooling is a hard road, but homeschooling a child with extra learning, emotional, social, and behavioral needs is also often an isolating and lonely journey. Some families are able to push through this isolation and build a small support community, but for others, the needs of their child(ren) create barriers too large to overcome on their own.



Opportunity Complications
As I described in the video above, our family created our own support and many families can create their own tribe if they dedicate a good amount of time and energy to the task. But for families who homeschool children with a more complicated diagnosis or family dynamics, the solution for finding time to rest and opportunities to do activities and develop relationships are not as simple as pulling a few families together to create community. Instead, these families must rely on someone else to do the support legwork for them. Otherwise, they just continue the journey alone as best they can.


I would like to introduce you two homeschooling families who have been part of SPED Homeschool since we launched our nonprofit in 2017. SPED Homeschool board member Elaine Carmichael and SPED Homeschool team member Shanel Tarrant-Simone. Both of these hard-working homeschooling parents are mothers of boys on the more complicated end of the autism spectrum.


Elaine shares her story here about how after homeschooling her typical children for many years in a loving and nurturing co-op, her support system crumbled as her youngest son’s needs grew greater.

Further on in this same interview, Elaine also shared that even though her son just turned 18 this past year, there really is no place for her family to turn for the respite and help; respite she and her husband need and buddy opportunities so her son can have experiences similar to other kids and young adults his age. 

When I emailed Elaine last week to ask her some questions about the hurdles they face with integrating into their community and what it would mean to her family and her son Aaron to have reliable respite and buddy opportunities, here is how she answered my questions:

Q: How difficult is going out in public with Aaron? What roadblocks are a constant hindrance?

A: “Roadblocks are sights & sounds that overwhelm Aaron which most of us take for granted because they don’t bother us or we can ignore them.”

Q: In what ways does bringing Aaron out in public without help hinder your family’s ability to integrate into society?

A: “Having an extra set of hands can be a tremendous help. Aaron will try to run if he is uncomfortable with a situation.”

Q: How could having a consistent, trained, and caring buddy/helper for Aaron improve your family’s ability to participate in your community?

A: “It would be helpful to have “buddies” to come alongside us to allow us to go to dr appts, date nights, to a Bible class together, or both be able to be involved with choir & music rehearsals and worship services at the same time. Those are just a few. Maybe even be able to attend activities of our older children and granddaughter, knowing Aaron was enjoying good company.”

Q: Why did you choose to homeschool despite knowing the school could have helped provide some respite or buddy opportunities for you and Aaron?

A: “We continued homeschooling Aaron after his siblings graduated from homeschool. We felt it was still a calling God has given us. We had also heard many stories of the struggles families had with public schooling their special needs kids.”


Q: What else would you share with families/individuals about the advantages of homeschooling Aaron?
A: “We have the advantage of setting our own schedule, especially with dr appts and therapies taking time in a day. We can work around our son’s poor sleep schedule. We don’t have to concern with bullying or teachers who don’t understand Aaron’s needs.”


In the same way, but with even greater demands upon her time and resources, SPED Homeschool team member Shanel has raised and homeschooled her nonverbal autistic twin sons as a single mother. Shanel deals with similar issues as Elaine in caring for her boys who also just recently turned 18, but an added stress to her life is the sad truth that as a single-parent she often walks this road almost completely alone.

Opportunity Possibilities
SPED Homeschool understands a special needs homeschooling family’s need for respite and opportunities intimately because we have experienced those same needs within most of our own family’s homeschooling journeys. It breaks our hearts every time we have a new member join our Facebook support group asking for help in connecting them to local resources and not having anywhere to send them.

But we are not satisfied with providing just an online support for these families we have a heart to serve. We instead want to meet their greater needs and develop local support groups in communities throughout the United States through a program we are calling SPED Strong Tribes. These tribes will focus on filling 5 basic needs: togetherness, respite, opportunities, networking, and growth. Each of these components are being covered in blogs this week before our campaign to increase awareness of the essential nature of each in supporting special needs homeschooling families.


To learn more about the SPED Strong Tribes campaign and how you can help build stronger special education homeschooling families by partnering with us in this campaign, click here.


We have also created this simple video to explain the whole program. 

Thank you for sharing this information and partnering with us to help our isolated families get the respite and opportunities they so greatly desire and need.

For more information on the five basic foundations we will be building into our new SPED Strong Tribes, check out all the blogs in this series:
Homeschooling Families Strengthened by Togetherness
Homeschooling Families Strengthened by Respite and Opportunities
Homeschooling Families Strengthened by Networking
Homeschooling Families Strengthened by Growth


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