Malheur ESD knocks aside barriers to get students on career paths
Harley Belnap, who will be a junior at Vale High School, has experience caring for younger children, but now she is earning her first paycheck working for Little Hands Daycare as part of a program of paid internships for students with employment barriers. Children such as Taylor Thorstad, 2, are naturally drawn to Belnap, said Little Hands owner Chelsie Bates. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
Dayten Cunha, 14, learned an important lesson his first day on the job: Always keep your tools ready to work.
Cunha, who has cerebral palsy, made the 10-minute commute to Vale Christian Church in his wheelchair. He found out he had to recharge it first thing so he could continue to work through the day.
Cunha is among nearly four dozen eastern Oregon students with challenges to employment such as physical or learning disabilities who are gaining experience this summer with paid internships.
Dannette Hackman, Malheur ESD vocational transition program coordinator, launched a pilot program last summer with Youth Rising’s support. The program was a hit, and six area districts are participating this summer.
Youth Rising, an Oregon nonprofit, provides academic, vocational and social support for students in a half-dozen states. Its Youth Force is a development program for students ages 14-21 with disabilities or on an individualized education program. Youth Force is active in Crook, Deschutes, Jackson, Lake, Klamath and now Malheur counties.
Youth Force pays students’ wages for 200 hours of work, usually for 10 weeks at 20 hours per week, using a grant from the Oregon Department of Education. Employers provide the opportunity and mentoring and get willing and eager workers that their budgets might not have supported.
Many of the students in the program deal with anxiety and communication challenges, but they say their jobs are giving them the confidence to try new things and interact with people more. They also say they are learning how to ask for help and advocate for themselves.
Cunha is signed up for two jobs, working for Vale Christian Church and Capps Auto. The cerebral palsy has caused learning delays and limits his mobility and the use of his left hand, but Cunha is eager to work. One of his first job lessons was creating extra keys for the church. He proudly wears his around his neck and tries to be the first to work in the morning so he can open the place.
The work experience brings lessons big and small that can’t be anticipated in a class. For instance, Cunha discovered his wheelchair was tracking dirt onto the church’s carpets. A little brainstorming with his mother and a supervisor came up with the partial solution of making sure he doesn’t blast through mud puddles on his way to work.
Cunha said it’s hard for him to find things to be part of in the small town. His work means a lot more to him than just a paycheck.
“It feels like I’m an adult,” he said.
Hackman’s four-person team already works with the students during the year to help them toward life after school. They know the students’ interests and aptitudes and try to match them with employers. They also work with employers to help them understand the students’ needs and capabilities.
“Just because they have a disability, it’s not a closed door,” Hackman said. “They just do things differently.”
Students get a sense of responsibility, confidence and possibility for the future when they are treated like true employees and earn a paycheck.
“It’s been one of the most spectacular things I have ever witnessed,” Hackman said.
Kaylee McPherson, who will be a senior in the Nyssa School District, has her first real job with Nyssa Early Head Start. McPherson, who struggles with anxiety and learning challenges, has found working easier than she expected. McPherson hopes to be an elementary teacher someday.
Hackman said that will be a tough road for McPherson even with a lot of support and help. Hackman never wants to shut down students’ dreams, though, because they have enough people saying no to them already. Instead, her team attempts to place students in jobs that reveal multiple potential career paths that fit with their interests.
Hunter Freer, who will be a junior in Nyssa, said he couldn’t have found a job on his own because of his anxiety. This summer, he is working for the Nyssa School District Transportation Department.
He plans to put some of his paychecks into his business, Awe-tistic Metal. Freer, who has autism, creates and sells metal creations through a Facebook page.
Freer thinks he might want to make custom hot rods someday, and he likes the practical mechanical skills he’s learning taking care of the district’s buses.
Phil Torres, transportation department supervisor, said that although Freer and Coltin Cooper, another student in the program, need some extra care with instruction and supervision, he values their readiness to work.
“Everybody needs a chance,” he said. “Everybody has a problem.”
Hackman said parents have called her in tears, just begging for their children to be given a chance. Hackman gets to know employers before assigning a student because she wants to make sure students will be in environments where they will be encouraged and thrive. Many employers in the small towns know the students already.
Hackman’s team also works with some students on issues such as hygiene and proper social interactions. Not every student who wants to be in Youth Force is ready, but the jobs become goals as students work on their skills.
Adam Prince, the Nyssa technology department supervisor, met with Hackman to really understand the three students his department took on. He had concerns about becoming a caretaker rather than a supervisor.
Instead, his department is getting stuff done this summer that they might not have been able to get to without the extra workers, he said.
Nyssa School Board Chair Susan Ramos said she is glad her school district has taken on nearly a dozen interns. Her own daughter has disabilities, and she wishes the program had been available to her.
Julia Williams will be a senior in Huntington, a town of fewer than 600 people between Baker and Ontario and nearly nonexistent youth employment options. Williams said she likes to keep to herself but her job at the Huntington Public Library is giving her confidence to try new things while also helping with her reading.
“I’d just be sitting in my room doing nothing if not here,” she said.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
Suchi Gillen, who will be a sophomore, splits her time between TLC Beauty Salon and Don’s Lumber in Adrian as part of Youth Force. Assisting others is making her feel more responsible, she said, and is helping her speak up more when she needs help. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)