Public schools help guide disabled youths through their teen years, but what happens when they graduate and become adults?

Hundreds of Sonoma County parents sought answers to that question Wednesday at the fourth annual Transition Fair at the Sonoma County Office of Education.

Parents of young adults with special needs learned about myriad resources available to help their children through the daunting transition from public school into the wider world.

More than three dozen social service groups offered information about job training and placement, continuing education, housing, day programs, health care and finances.

Petaluma mother Sandy Smail and her son John, 21, collected business cards, fliers and pamphlets. Like other parents, Smail said the process is overwhelming.

John, who has mild cerebral palsy and developmental delays, works at Costco now and previously worked at Sutter Hospital. But, like many young adults, he is eager to move out and become more independent.

Dana Zapanta, a school psychologist in the special ed department, said this transition is a difficult one for parents.

"There are different times when parents get anxious – before high school, between 18 and 22 and when public education ends," she said.

Special needs youths can remain in the public education system until age 22. Then, they are no longer eligible for school-based special education programs.

"There's just so much parents don't know," Smail said. "It's a learning process. It's scary in a lot of ways."

Linda Walsh is clinical director at LifeWorks in Santa Rosa, a nonprofit group that assists children with Asperberger Syndrome and nonverbal learning disorders and their families.

"We help them get to the next level, whatever that may be," she said. "It may be at SRJC, work, Sonoma State."

Sometimes parents must shift their expectations, she said.

"Parents sometimes have an idea that their child will launch out of high school and right into a four-year school," she said. "Often it takes a lot longer, if ever."

Janice Hubberth of Santa Rosa and her son Joe, 14, who has Prader-Willi syndrome, are seeking information earlier than some.

"This is just a great resource," she said. "It is an incredibly stressful transition for both of us."

The event was sponsored by the county schools' Special Education department, the North Bay Regional Center, the state Department of Rehabilitation and others. The county schools' program provides services at about 50 school and community sites in Sonoma County, funded by district, state and federal funds.