The Engage for Change | state (EFC) team from Idaho is known for being a model for others.

Now, thanks to a partnership that includes funding from one of the nation’s biggest food companies, they are taking that to the next level as they prepare deaf youth for success after high school.

In this state spotlight, you’ll learn how they tapped cross-agency relationships, expertise of the deaf community, and evidence-based research to: 

  • Apply for and win a foundation grant.

  • Plan a project for launch in 2021.

  • Give advice to other agencies that work with transition-age deaf youth and are seeking new ways to expand their service. 

$55,000 Award Announced

Yogurt maker Chobani built the world’s largest yogurt production facility in 2017 in Twin Falls, Idaho, which is about 200 miles northwest of Salt Lake City. It’s a city of fewer than 50,000 people, nestled in a valley with about 400,000 dairy cows and a thriving community college that attracts many deaf students.

The local newspaper shared the happy news in late October: The Chobani Foundation announced the 2020 Chobani Community Impact Fund grants, with the goal to stimulate economic development and innovative entrepreneurship in the area — and, with one award in particular, for deaf youth. 

A $55,000 impact grant was awarded to the transition program at the Idaho Educational Services for the Deaf and the Blind (IESDB), to convert an old school bus into a food truck that can be a “restaurant on wheels,” serving up work-based learning and mentoring along with a tasty menu the students will develop, cook, and serve.

“It is exciting that Chobani is investing in deaf youth and helping to transform their lives and communities,” said Stephanie W. Cawthon, PhD, Director of the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes (NDC), which coordinates the Engage for Change initiative throughout the U.S. “Creating systems change on a local level is tough, but the Idaho team shows it can be done. This project represents many of the paths — accessible learning, high expectations, mentoring, and letting deaf people take the lead — that we know lead to greater postsecondary success for deaf youth.”  

Idaho Teams Up

This big win was a credit to teamwork. Cross-agency representation and partnership is a key component of the Idaho team’s success, on this project and many others. The team includes:

“This is a transition coalition that has been in collaboration for several years, with employment as its main priority,” said Steven Snow. “Our goals are to foster a smooth transition experience, provide more opportunities to find employment and be successful, and promote growth in Idaho. Chobani is a company that shares our team’s focus to include people with disabilities and marginalized populations.” 

The Application Process

Great ideas are plentiful. Funding, however, is not — and it can be especially hard for state teams and agencies to tackle. How did this two-year grant come about?

It began with Kristy Buffington and Ann Flannery writing a grant application. Their first draft was to request a three-year grant for three different projects — a coffee kiosk, an accessible computer lab, and a micro-packaging business. Then it was time to consult with the Idaho Community Foundation (ICF), which helps Chobani administer the grants. Lisa Bearg, an ICF donor relations officer, advised them that the application was “all over the place.”  

“To have a better chance of winning, she told us to pick one thing and focus on it,” recalls Buffington. 

Resilient and ready to adapt, the team took the feedback and reassessed the application. They liked the coffee kiosk idea best, which set off more brainstorming and research. Buffington and Flannery integrated NDC employment and educational data reports, which examine and illuminate the challenges faced by deaf people in Idaho and throughout the U.S. They also did some market research, determining the Twin Falls area probably didn’t need another coffee shop.

Upon finding an NPR story about the rise in deaf-owned businesses, they became inspired by the Tilden Cafe in San Francisco, a grilled cheese food truck run by the nonprofit Deaf Counseling, Advocacy and Referral Agency.

They also reached out to Ryan Maliszewski, a deaf entrepreneur who became a valuable mentor and application reviewer for the team. He is the CEO of Mozzeria, a restaurant group that started as a food truck, and directs the Gallaudet University Innovation & Entrepreneurship Institute.

The revised grant application asked for $55,000 over two years to transform an unused school bus into a food truck managed and staffed by IESDB students ages 14 to 26, to help them learn essential live-enhancing skills. Once submitted, applications were reviewed by Chobani employees based on several criteria — how the program addresses underserved populations, reflects creative thinking, and promotes entrepreneurship. 

The Idaho team’s grant won. 

“It was humbling that Chobani saw the value of what we’re trying to do,” said Buffington. “They have a lot of trust in us and the program.” 

More Than Just a Food Truck

With the grant awarded, the work begins. The team is now developing a curriculum and working with a custom food truck builder to transform the school bus into a culinary cruiser. They plan to have it ready by June 2021 for tours by student campers at IESDB’s Ready, Set, Go To Work summer camp, a summer work program funded by the Idaho Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. 

The food truck will then be fully operational by August 2021, with the first cohort of 18-21 year old students managing its launch, including student assignments for market research, naming, logo, and menu. After that, they will manage all day-to-day operations, including inventory, budgeting, and cooking. They will be serving hungry Idahoans throughout the state, as the truck visits schools and events to show other students and parents what they can accomplish. 

“We also plan to have the food truck at local interpreting conferences and training workshops to serve food at lunch or breaks,” said Snow. 

Research shows accessible work-based learning programs can benefit both local businesses and deaf students, who can develop workplace readiness skills that may not otherwise be available to them, learn more about potential careers, and experience a sense of community.

Mentoring, which tends to be in short supply for deaf students, is an impactful component of the program. Part of the grant is a stipend for four adult mentors — two for deaf students and two for blind students — who can be in Idaho or (via online conferencing) anywhere in the United States. Research shows deaf youth who participate in mentorship programs develop greater confidence, self-worth, and deaf identity, which can in turn build self-esteem. They also develop better social relationships, stronger independent living and coping skills, and more expressive language.

Community outreach is also essential. As Buffington told the local newspaper, “We want to partner with Magic Valley business leaders and local business owners. This way employers can see that deaf and blind talent pools are an untapped resource in our community.”

Another essential component is Buffington herself. 

“Without Kristy, this program wouldn’t be happening,” said Paula Mason, who supervises Buffington at IESDB. “We appreciate the hard work, passion, and dedication she put into it. Kristy developed the idea, did the research, wrote the grant, and will be the lead person to ensure it is a success.”

Advice for Other Teams

Buffington and Snow have solid advice for other teams and agencies. These are the lessons they learned from the Chobani grant process. 

  • Think about partners. You don’t have to go it alone. Build a team and tap all of its talent. 

  • Reach out and network, especially with deaf people and leaders. Seek their feedback and input, then let their mentoring guide you (and your students). 

  • Be creative and adapt. Think outside the box — whether it’s reclaiming an old school bus headed for auction or scrapping an idea that won’t excite the grantmakers. 

  • Look into other funding opportunities. Don’t confine yourself to grants just for deaf education. This Chobani grant was a corporate foundation teaming up with a local community foundation. Is there something similar in your state or area? 

Idaho is a state that is forging a path others can follow. 

“They are thinking big and tapping into their vision and passion. All of us should follow their lead. It’s not about the least we can do, but about the most we can achieve,” said Cawthon. 

About EFC | state

Idaho is a member of the Engage for Change | state initiative, which brings together leaders from state-level education and vocational rehabilitation agencies to close gaps in education and employment for deaf people — including at regular regional meetings during the pandemic. 

Through networks of shared leadership and peer support, state leaders leverage NDC's support and resources to create an exchange of ideas and collaboration that would otherwise be impossible. Managed by State Engagement Coordinator Jen Higgins, Engage for Change | state is committed to systems change and promoting #DeafSuccess.