Aug 2018 Stockton Record
To secure a job, PJ Swan took any volunteer opening she could find — Stockton Asparagus Festival, Goodwill, CVS and in the Superintendent’s Office at Lodi Unified.
PJ Swan has turned her life experiences as a baby born with “cat eye syndrome” into an inspiring employee with the Lodi Unified School District, where she is a CaPROMISE job coach assistant, helping students with disabilities to prepare them for life and how to be more independent.There are those who may dread their job and curse at blaring alarm clocks in the morning. Twenty-five-year-old PJ Swan is not one of them. She’s cheerfully awake at 4:30 a.m. and catches a bus from Stockton to her job at the Lodi Unified School District main offices. By the time she arrives by 8 a.m., Swan is said to be one of the first individuals to get to work.
For Swan, having a full-time job gives her a great deal of independence and pride. For most of her life growing up was a struggle. “It was hard and I couldn’t walk or talk; it was a very tough time,” Swan said with a soft voice. “After that, I started moving on.” Self-described as a very sick child, Swan was born with cat eye syndrome, also known as Schmid-Fraccaro syndrome, when babies are born with 22 extra chromosomes. The “cat eye” comes from one of the most common symptoms that the eyes take the shape of a cat due to a hole in the iris. Born both deaf and blind, Swan spent her early years in and out of San Francisco hospitals seeing special doctors. She could not eat by mouth, talk or walk and had to depend on a feeding tube to survive.
But she slowly improved. As she got older, Swan attended Lawrence Elementary preschool and Victor Elementary in Lodi. By the time she graduated to Morada Middle School, she was in surgery for a cochlear implant at 14 years old. Defying the odds, Swan would graduate from McNair High School and then Needham West Adult Centre, a special program for adults with disabilities to learn important life skills. She especially enjoyed learning how to dress for an interview, about office etiquette and what supports would help her land a job. Securing a job was important, Swan said, and she took any volunteer opening that she could, from working the Stockton Asparagus Festival, Goodwill, CVS and in the Superintendent’s Office at Lodi Unified. For the past four years, Swan has worked as a district CaPROMISE job coach assistant, where she helps other Lodi Unified students with disabilities to prepare them for life and how to be more independent. She works in an office keeping attendance, sorting email, filing, answering phones and running errands.
“PJ Swan is dynamic and determined,” Lodi Unified Superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer said. “Lodi Unified is so proud to have her on staff ... PJ’s transition story from Lodi Unified student to employee is a great example to all of us, and exemplifies our goal to prepare students for college and the workforce.”
Having a job has helped her pay for her own health insurance, earn a paycheck and learn how to take care of her cochlear implant so she can travel for work. “PJ has always been a hard worker and she always wanted to work,” said Liz Zastrow, district program specialist with Lodi Career Connections. “To see a student that you’ve been deemed as a failure baby and weren’t sure that was going to live, and now she’s a district employee ... she always wanted to work for Lodi Unified. She’s a great employee.”
At the moment, the newest challenge for Swan has been figuring out proper means of transportation and pass a driver’s licence test. Zastrow said Swan doesn’t mind taking matters into her own hands. “She doesn’t want to be late, so if she thinks that the bus isn’t going to come, or if we hired a driver and they’re not going to come, she’ll take Uber before they even get here because she will not be late,” Zastrow said.
On her off days, Swan said she likes to “spend time at home,” with family, go shopping and jumps at the chance to speak at large conferences with as many as 1,000 people to share her story. It’s Swan’s life experiences and ability to adapt that continue to inspire those at Lodi Unified and the students she works with. “I help students and I like to help staff,” Swan said. “After that, if I’m finished, I go to another step to see how they can do by themselves, to see how they can do their own skills. I like to work.”