Program helps find employment for special needs youth

Published on Thu, Dec 18, 2008 by Sam Kaas

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Program helps find employment for special needs youth

By Sam Kaas

The holiday season is a busy one for many, but for the owners of a small business, the months of November and December can be nearly impossible to handle.

With increased demand for products and services and an influx in customer traffic, many stores find it necessary at this time of year to hire some temporary help. But in today’s economy, hiring extra employees can be expensive.

This holiday season, many Blaine businesses have had an alternative option to sifting through resumes. Local establishments like Big Al’s Diner, J&M Lawn Mower Shop and Cost Cutter are among the participants in this year’s Transitions program, a class offered by the Blaine high school special education department.

One of the aims of the class is to place special needs students in volunteer or paid employment positions throughout the community. The program got its start following such legislation as the No Child Left Behind Act and the Individual Education Act of 2004.

According to Kerry Munkres, a special education teacher in the Blaine school district, these acts mandated that such a program must be established in every Washington school. The Blaine program starts with students at around age 14, training them around the school.

Later, students are placed in positions at businesses. The goal of the class, according to Munkres, is to train the students in both life skills and job skills.

In addition to working at businesses in town, students in the class are also familiarized with the public transit system in Whatcom County.
Many of the students have been trained to help with various tasks in school buildings, and some have volunteered with organizations like the Sardis Raptor Center in Ferndale.

Munkres tries to engage the transitions students in a variety of activities, so that by the time they go into the community, they’ve experienced a lot of things.

She is advising 10 students in the class this year. On average, two or three will graduate at the end of every school year.

Because of their experience in the program, many of them will be able to find employment after high school. Some also work with agencies like Job Corps or DVR (the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation).

One student came to the end of his volunteer time with a community business – and soon found himself returning, this time as an employee.
“He actually got hired at Cost Cutter,” said Munkres, adding that the student, who graduated last year, also participated in the Job Corps and still works at the Blaine store part-time.

Mike Zaddack, who owns J&M Lawn Mower Shop on Blaine Road, was pleased with the outcome of his participation in the program this year.

Zaddack said that he had a student at his shop for about six weeks. The boy did basic jobs around the shop, such as sweeping and cleaning, and performed other small tasks, like draining oil from engines.

Zaddack explained that any hands-on skills are valuable in the job market. He also outlined some of the many skills that a trade like small-engine repair promotes, such as organization and establishing a routine.
Those are skills that students sometimes miss out on as school curriculums focus more on technology and less on other trades.

“They are moving away from the hands-on stuff in schools,” Zaddack said.

Zaddack said he was happy to help train the student, and said he hopes that in the future, people will rely on those with hands-on skills to repair their products, as money gets tighter.

“It’s become a throw-away world,” he said, adding that it didn’t have to be that way. As more people such as the transitions students get training in skilled trades that they would not otherwise have access to, those trades have a better and better chance of continuing on.

“That mower,” Zaddack said, indicating a weather beaten but still very operational yellow lawn tractor, “has been around as long as I have … and I’ve been around since ’74.”

Zaddack bought the J&M Lawn Mower Shop, which is located right outside of town, in 1974 after the first owner died, because, in his words “I couldn’t bring myself to leave it.”

He sees any repair skills as very valuable, and said he would like to participate in the program again next year. His hope is to someday have more than six weeks with the student he is training.

The more time a student works, he explained, the more likely they are to find an efficient routine for completing specific tasks, a skill that is essential in many jobs.

Routine, of course, isn’t the only benefit that the Transitions students pick up while on the job during the holiday season – and it’s perhaps because of this that the program has had such a successful run thus far.
Kerry Munkres says that, of the students that graduate every year, an average of two out of every three will soon be employed, either with a company or through an agency of some sort.

Munkres considers her program very lucky to have the support of so many local enterprises in helping to ready the students to step out into the community.

“What’s great is that businesses in Blaine are open to helping to train these kids,” she said.