A van pulls up to the Gig Harbor Foursquare Church and six neatly dressed students jump out and follow their two instructors into the building to begin their morning of work. The high school-age students are participating in the Employment Training & Transition Program (ET&T) at Peninsula High School. The older students, ages 18 to 21, are in the Community Transition Program (CTP) through Peninsula School District. Both programs help special needs students learn the skills they need to transition into the work world.
Community support is critical to the success of the program, and the Gig Harbor Foursquare Church is one of the many community partners that provides opportunities for job training. The six students are learning what it takes to become a janitor and what the job entails. “We cleaned the Foursquare Church because they are one of the local businesses we support and do our job skills training at,” said Kelsey Wessinger, special education teacher for CTP. “We are lucky to have so much support in our community, and we have very diverse jobs that allow our students to explore a variety of interests and skills. We give a variety of support to our students as needed. Our goal is to provide a seamless transition from school to a positive contributing community member in their local community.”
Each student is assigned a job to do at the church. After a quick briefing by Wessinger, they all receive an assignment list with easy-to-read instructions and photos of the cleaning products and tools needed to do their assigned job. Bo Hodges, 19, is the master of the bathroom. He diligently works through his list, carefully checking each item and matching the proper cleaning supplies to the task. Hodges loves working at the church. When questioned about his plans for the future he said, “I want to work for Kohl’s.”
Sixteen-year-old Nathalie is a serious and focused young lady who worked quickly to complete her assigned task. “I did the bathroom and vacuumed. I did the counter in the kitchen and I mopped. I like helping. One of my favorite things is to help people. I want to work with animals. I love animals and want to work at a cat and dog shelter,” she said.
Aryn Anderton is a paraeducator with the Peninsula High School ET&T Program. She helps supervise the teenagers and young adults with their assigned tasks. “I love working with the students and the amazing team of educators in the ET&T Program. It is a rewarding experience seeing the growth in each student,” she said. “The program is a win-win for local businesses and the program itself; it provides job training and helps foster independence in these students, helping them to see their strengths as we give them positive feedback.”
Sometimes it can be a challenge for special needs students to fit in at school. Christian Portillo, 20, was embraced by the Peninsula High School football team where he served as the team manager. After graduating high school, he has continued on in a volunteer role. “I did the vacuum and now I am doing the trash. This is teaching me how to do a job when I grow up,” he said. Portillo wants to be a fireman when he “grows up.”
When the students approach graduation from the program, the instructors work closely with parents and caregivers to develop a plan. “Students either leave connected with an agency that helps support them in finding and maintaining a job or making sure parents and students leave knowing about all the connections they can have in the community,” said Wessinger. “Adult day health programs, Special Olympics and respite care are some of the options. We work individually with each family to come up with a plan that best suits them.”
In 2017, 10 students graduated from the program. According to Wessinger, “Five qualified for the School to Work Program through the Developmental Disabilities Administration. Three out of the five students have been given part-time employment. One student is working at the YMCA in childcare, one student is employed at Harbor Speech Pathology assisting with housekeeping, and our last student is in the process of being hired at Jimmy John’s. The other two are continuing to work with a job coach to find or develop a job that best suits their skills and interests. The other students who graduated have an alternative plan to working and are involved with community programs, respite care or adult day health programs.”
The 2017-2018 school year will provide new opportunities for fun as well. “We have been working closely with parents and students who are past and current graduates of the program to help in the development of a Friendship Club. They will be meeting weekly in Gig Harbor and providing free and diverse activities for students to stay connected and involved with their peers and community,” Wessinger said.