Writer / Jamie Hergott
Photography provided by AHS Work Study Program
Jas smiled, adjusted her Monical’s Pizza shirt and offered a handshake. While it was the middle of a school day, she was already on her way out the door for her internship shift at the local pizza restaurant.
Jas is one of 25 students who participate in the Avon High School Work Study Program, which is specifically designed for students with disabilities who are pursuing a Certificate of Completion. The goal of the program is to prepare them as much as possible for vocational opportunities.
There are two phases to the program. During the first phase, freshmen and sophomore students attend pre-vocational classes. As juniors, they are given projects around the high school for about one hour per day. This boosts their skills training and gives them practice in developing a work ethic and following a schedule. Some of these jobs include assisting in the office, running the breakfast cart or helping in the cafeteria.
As teachers and job coaches assess the students’ skills over time, these students are then ushered into the second phase: the Work-Study phase, where they are paired with community partners for their senior year. The students go off-campus for two to three hours a day to work with their community partners.
“The skills students learn outside of the building are invaluable,” says Kimberly Lobosky, Avon High School’s Transition Coordinator. “Some of these students didn’t speak in middle school, and now they’re independently working at jobs. It gives the student a realistic perspective on how it is to work in the real world.”
Lobosky has been teaching for 16 years and has been the Transition Coordinator for two years. She loves meeting parents of young children with disabilities and helping them navigate the many opportunities Avon schools offer.
“A diagnosis can be heavy at a young age, but it doesn’t have to close doors,” Lobosky says. “We take a kid’s dream and see how close we can get them to that.”
While all students are provided the support of a job coach in order to learn their job initially, Jas demonstrated independence quickly and is able to do her job under the supervision of the Monical’s staff. She then takes the bus back to school when her shift is over.
Riley, Cameron, Jaylen, Lazarus and Bailey are other students who participate in the program. After some prompting from their job coaches, they proudly rattled off their job descriptions. Cameron completed his senior year last year, but has returned to AHS for an extra year to continue to participate in the program. He works cleaning the Wellness Center at the YMCA. Lazarus cleans tables, floors and dishes at McAlister’s. Riley works in childcare at the YMCA, making crafts and spending time with kids. Bailey works in retail at Sweet M’s Boutique, hanging and tagging clothes and unpacking boxes.
Vocational training has been a part of this program for more than 10 years. Once students graduate, Lobosky connects families to the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation so that students can maintain employment.
Elizabeth Camacho’s 19-year-old daughter Annalee is wheelchair-bound, but an adaptive coffee tray for her wheelchair made by a school custodian, Mr. Victor, has allowed Annalee to securely deliver coffee orders to teachers in the building daily. Now Annalee works successfully at the Plainfield Recreation Center, where she folds towels, cleans tables and dusts equipment.
“Watching her become more independent and mature is immeasurably valuable to us,” Camacho says.
Lori Rice, mother of Cameron, shares a similar story. Cameron was diagnosed with autism when he was three years old. When he began going to Avon’s developmental preschool, he was also participating in occupational therapy, speech therapy and play therapy almost weekly. He is now finishing up his work study program, splitting his days between classes and work at the YMCA.
“It’s been amazing,” Rice says. “This work study program is just so valuable to enabling a child like Cameron learn to go into the real world. As his parents, we wouldn’t have been able to do that by ourselves.”
Lobosky relies on her staff of job coaches, but she also is thankful the community has rallied around this program and embraced the students.
“The Work Study Program could not accommodate the number of students we currently do without the partnership of our community hosts,” she says. “Businesses that host a work-study intern not only provide endless prospects for teachable moments in a real-world setting, but many have expressed to us that they have also benefitted.”
One such partner is Sweet M’s Boutique in Plainfield. Stacy Maxwell, owner of Sweet M’s, partnered with the work study program this semester and has seen significant benefits on both ends of the partnership.
“Bailey comes in every day for two hours, and she is just really good at her job,” Maxwell says. “She can do absolutely anything that is asked of her. The other girls who work here have really embraced her.”
Maxwell also noted that Bailey herself has transformed over the past two months. She used to dress in basketball shorts and t-shirts every day. Now she comes to work wearing dresses and makeup.
“I have loved seeing her self-confidence grow by working with us,” Maxwell says.
While there are many who support the students, Lobosky says that the arms and legs of the program are the job coaches who accompany students to their internships.
Missy Bell has been working with the work-study program since it began, and she says it’s hard to put into words how rewarding it is to work with the students.
“I love my job,” Bell says. “There are so many things that these kids can do. I am always thinking, ‘how can we make this work?’ Their disability should not define them. Believe me, I learn far more from these kids then they’ll ever learn from me.”
Each semester, the staff hosts an AHS Work Study Employment Breakfast to honor the work of students and to thank community hosts. Lobosky says it is humbling to see the students’ achievements showcased for all to see.
While the program is very successful, there is still plenty of room, and a need to grow.
“My dream would be to have a vocational resource center off-site that would be the hub of all vocational training activities for the students in Avon,” Lobosky says.
As Lobosky keeps her eyes on the bigger picture, Avon students now are enjoying the chance to reach their maximum potential as members of our community. That is a worthy dream come true.