As office manager, Meghan Kensil has a lot of responsibilities, and as she listed them off, one brought a particular smile to her face.
“I keep the CEO on track,” she said with a friendly laugh.
The CEO is Josh Fields, who she’s shared a friendship with since they were students at Tamenend Middle School in Warrington.
“We met at a school dance and Meghan chased me around the dance and ever since then we’ve been best friends,” said Fields, co-founder and CEO of The Next Step Programs, which operates in Bucks and Cumberland counties.
Together, they work out of the nonprofit’s Doylestown Borough office with a mission is to create more opportunities and access for young adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
For Kensil, who has Down syndrome, having a career at TNS alongside her best friend is everything she could’ve hoped for.
“I love working here. This was my dream job from years and years ago,” said Kensil.
As for Fields, TNS was an answer to a question asked years earlier.
After graduation, what comes next?
It all started with a casual conversation in their high school cafeteria. Fields, a junior at the time, and Kensil, a senior, were eating lunch with a group of friends, some with disabilities and some without.
Fields asked everyone what they planned to do after graduation.
Their friends without disabilities took turns answering without much hesitation, with plans to attend college, join the military or go straight to work. For the rest of the group, the future wasn’t as clear.
“When we got to Meghan and some of our other friends with disabilities, the answer was ‘I don’t know,’” said Fields.
“As someone who was so focused on a career and that next step for me, it devastated me to learn that Meg didn’t have that same path.”
Upset and disappointed, the conversation left Fields determined to find a solution.
That summer, while volunteering at a summer camp for young adults with Down syndrome, Fields met Ricky Price, who has a brother with neurofibromatosis. The two bonded through their shared frustrations over the lack of opportunities for the people they cared about.
“The bottom line was that Meg deserved to have a meaningful life as much as I do. Her extra chromosome doesn’t change who she is or what she can and can’t do,” Fields said.
So, in 2015, Fields, who was only 16 at the time, and Price, who was 23, co-founded The Next Step Programs. In the beginning, they focused much of their efforts on advocacy, fundraising and establishing themselves within the disability community.
But over time, as ideas transformed into reality, TNS began directly serving young adults and their families through programs designed to help participants develop skills for employment, independent living, self-advocacy, and social interaction — all with the purpose of helping each individual achieve their goals and feel a sense of belonging in their communities.
“Ultimately, we want to give people access to the lives they want to lead,” Fields said.
Creating opportunity for adults with disabilities in Bucks County
The Next Step Programs offers several classes throughout the week, centering around topics such as self-advocacy, cinematic themes, career exploration, building skills for independence, and fitness.
Becoming an Entrepreneur, one of the weekly evening classes offered at TNS this Fall, focuses on building the skills necessary for self-employment by exploring topics like idea brainstorming, developing a mission, design and marketing.
“For people with disabilities, when they have so much working against them and so many barriers, one way to take control of your life . . . is to create a business around your life. So, we really wanted to teach these young adults that they don’t have to go work for somebody. They can come up with an idea and start a business,” Fields said.
Explore Bucks County, is another program they offer to provide opportunites for participants to go out and interact with the community through activities like scavenger hunts, workplace exploration, fitness and recreational excursions.
“One point of this program is to get them out of their shells and give them the opportunity to fail or to succeed. Because that’s the only way any of us are going to succeed anyway,” Fields said. “The most fun they have in the week is the workplace exploration. They really love being challenged and having to work.”
“The more these guys are out there making an impression, the more these businesses see that they have skills, and they can be part of their organizations, they have value and that they want to be working.”
Building partnerships with businesses to strengthen the community
Building strong relationships with local businesses — in addition to helping provide opportunities for workplace exploration — has enabled the nonprofit to further its goal to educate the community.
Fields said he doesn’t believe employers purposefully discriminate against people with disabilities, instead he’s found many simply lack the understanding needed to make opportunities more accessible.
There are several barriers that often get in the way of employment, explained Fields. An employee with a disability’s chance for job success often depends on factors like ease of transportation, training accommodations and communicating directions in plain language.
“My whole goal with these businesses and with these programs is to show people that people with disabilities are just like you and I, and the more we restrict them, the more we keep them from engaging with their community, we’re not just harming them, we’re harming our communities,” Fields said.
In addition to educating others, it was equally important for Fields to do the same with his own business.
“My whole rationale is, how can I tell a business to do it, if I don’t practice it myself,” Field said.
“I see firsthand the benefit Meg brings to our office, not just in her ability to do things like keeping the office tidy and keeping me on track, but in a way where Meg represents everything that TNS is.”
Finding happiness and sharing hope
While she loves her job at The Next Step Programs, Kensil has also enjoyed the benefits of being a participant, where she makes new friends while working on personal goals she sets for herself. She relishes in the accomplishments of her young adult years, which include working two jobs and having an active social life.
Where she had once felt scared and overwhelmed entering adulthood, she now feels a sense of gratitude and happiness around the life she has built.
“I love my whole life, I really do,” Kensil said. “TNS feels like home to me and TNS is part of my family. TNS has given me positivity, hope, and community, like my friends and my besties.”
Spreading a message of encouragement, Kensil often speaks to audiences on behalf of The Next Step Programs, talking about the work they do while sharing her own story of finding hope.
“I love speaking in front of a lot of people in a crowd about my whole life and my jobs, my dream job,” Kensil said. “It helps other people with Down syndrome and other disabilities in being hopeful about having a job in your future. They deserve happiness.”