Welcome to the workforce

Travis Gallup makes pizzas at the M&M Market and Deli, as part of a new work experience program for special-needs students at Bainbridge High School. - Jesse Beals/Staff Photo
Travis Gallup makes pizzas at the M&M Market and Deli, as part of a new work experience program for special-needs students at Bainbridge High School.
— image credit: Jesse Beals/Staff Photo

A new program puts challenged students on the job with local businesses. BR>

In a pre-lunch-rush lull, Travis Gallup works quickly, pressing a crust into each of the six deep-dish, mini-pizza pans on the narrow counter, then carefully ladling on the sauce.

The job, he says, is stressful at times, when it’s busy and the pizza pans run out. It also took a while to figure out a good way to get the right amount of cheese on each pizza.

But, Gallup says, “I enjoy the work experience, and wish I could do more.”

Pizza-making is part of a work experience program with local businesses, begun this year by Melanie Elliott, who teaches the “functional skills” class for developmentally challenged at Bainbridge High School.

“I am very grateful to these businesses for giving a sampling of what it’s like to work (in a workplace),” Elliott said. “The classroom can never mimic what you find at a work site, even if you practice folding pizza boxes in the classroom.”

This school year has been the first that has brought Elliott a group of students who are highly capable and old enough to make an off-campus work program make sense – and she has freshmen and sophomores she is also preparing for the fledgling program.

Students take her class from freshman year through graduation. The course helps students transition from school life to life after school, whether the student needs moderate or maximum support. Students learn skills for personal care, daily living, and vocational and recreational activities.

It’s all about getting Elliott’s students into the community, and getting them comfortable with being there.

Elliott sent out 36 letters over the summer to Bainbridge businesses, asking whether students might be able to volunteer a couple of hours a week in manufacturing, services or product sales.

She got three responses; with each, she and the owners discussed the types of jobs that were available and matched them with students’ abilities.

“We’ve been playing it by ear, and it’s been really great,” Elliott said. This semester, four seniors worked at M&M Market and Deli and the Bargain Boutique, with Pizza Factory and another business lined up for next semester.

Each business makes a commitment to one semester. A pair of students work at each site with a BHS paraeducator acting as job coach. To maximize the experience, the pairs switch businesses halfway through the semester and rotate duties at each site.

As job coach, paraeducator Steve Buitenveld feels that one of his primary functions is to “let the kids know it’s OK to be out in the community after (graduating) school, and to feel comfortable in the community as well as vice-versa.”

On the job

At M&M Market and Deli, seniors Travis Gallup and Taylor Anderson learn how to make pizzas, break down cardboard boxes, and wash dishes according to a set procedure dictated by the health district.

Anderson carefully scrubs plastic bins and lids in a sink, then rinses the items before dipping them into a sanitizing bath in a third sink. Gallup is making pizzas.

For Matt Randish, M&M owner, supporting kids and community schools through Little League and fundraisers is nothing new. When he got a letter from Elliott over the summer, he signed up.

“I thought the work program would be a good opportunity for my staff, customers, and the kids,” Randish said. “The staff has been having a good time with the students. They’re good kids. I show them how to do something and they do a great job. It’s a pleasure to have them here.”

At Winslow’s Bargain Boutique, a sign on the door proclaims, “We love our volunteer force at this shop!”

The shop sells donated clothes, small electronics, and other goods to benefit the Children’s Hospital in Seattle. Manager Patty Pelandini, says having BHS seniors Alex Allen and William Connor on the team is enjoyable.

“They’re a big help when they’re here,” Pelandini said. “They’re so eager to do whatever, it’s a pleasure to have them here.”

Twice a week, Allen and Connor take the bus to the shop with job coach Buitenveld, which is all part of the experience: reading a bus schedule and catching a bus to make it to work on time.

At Bargain Boutique, the students help load an ARC truck that carries away donations the shop does not need, moving items, and cleaning floors and windows. The students also test the small electronics for sale-worthiness.

“Our first day there, they had an old Sega (game), so that was fun,” Allen said. “It’s fun to test out the electronics.”

Allen says he has always liked electronics, and given his pick, he would love to work at an electronics store.

Pelandini cites as a strength the positive attitude the kids bring to the workplace.

“William (Connor) has a ‘can get it done’ attitude, and with a smile,” Pelandini said. “They just fit right in. We would definitely do it again.”

Filling a gap

The first year in Elliott’s class, freshmen acclimate to life in high school, sometimes a big change for the students and their parents.

As sophomores, students take on-campus jobs to practice operating in a work-like situation. Students may work with the custodial crew, office staff, in the library area, or in the district print shop.

Elliott sees juniors and seniors working off-campus as valuable for building endurance – what it takes to follow directions in an unfamiliar setting for a sustained period of time.

Students in the program are capable of holding down a job, but they need support to find work.

There has not been a formal program to help these students get jobs, since they are “too capable” to receive support from programs like Easter Seals.

“Bainbridge is the perfect setting (for gaining work experience). It’s a close-knit community, and the resources to take care of all your needs are here,” said Elliott, referring to the variety of stores and businesses that cover a broad range of potential work experiences.

Paraeducator Lorraine Ekholm works with students who have more severe challenges, but has also found jobs for them in the community. The first week in school, she “pounded the pavement” with junior Tim McKay and found work for him wiping down books at the Bainbridge Library, and postage-metering letters for the local newspaper.

“We don’t know how far students can go when we first meet them,” Ekholm said. “Every student I’ve worked with has surprised me, because they want to be (in the community).

“I’ve learned never to have a preconceived notion that someone cannot do something. All of our students can be contributing members of the community despite appearances or what we might think.”

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