'The greatest joy': M-S special needs transition program celebrates community inclusion

Standing in her dress clothes with freezing cold water poured over her head, Christine Northrup's message of what she was fighting for came to fruition during her participation in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge a few years ago.

Challenged by the Adult Transition Living and Advocacy Skills (ATLAS) young adults, Northrup, Mahomet-Seymour's special education director, said the students were unsure if she would attend as she only interacts with the students a few times a week.

Despite limited interactions, Northrup said students "took the greatest joy" in dumping the ice-cold water over her.

"We all laughed," she said. "It was a really fun thing to do together."

But during her drive home, Northrup began to realize the importance of the activity and its meaning for the students.

"The whole feeling that day was really special and a lot of fun, and I felt like I was a part of that," she said. "As I was driving away, I thought, 'This is how it feels for our kids to be included. It feels good. If this is how good it makes me feel, imagine how it makes them feel and how impactful it is for them.'"

Inclusion in the community is one of the main goals for the students. ATLAS instructor Licia Lukach said the program provides students a place in the community to learn life skills for those real-world scenarios.

The young adults, who range in age from 18 to the day before their 22nd birthday, learn to refine their skills outside the halls of high school and in the community setting at the Mahomet Area Youth Club's 700 W. Main St. location.

"The folks from MAYC were outstanding about the potential of using their building. We needed a building that wasn't used all day but was intended to be used by youth. It had all the things we needed," Northrup said. "We approached the MAYC board, and they welcomed us with open arms."

Northrup said the MAYC building has been essential in breaking students from the so-called "bell schedule." Though still convening during school hours, students learn to how to make a grocery list, shop for groceries, put away groceries, meal prep, cook meals, distribute tasks, work as a team, do laundry, clean the living area and much more.

"We really work on their skills, making sure they're prepped and ready to go," Lukach said.

Part of the life skill learning process also includes students holding jobs or volunteer opportunities in the community. Ultimately, the goal for each student is established by the parent and the student at the young adult's entrance into the program and is maintained through goal setting with the student's Individualized Education Program (IEP).

"Our goal is to get everybody some type of job, whether that's volunteering or employment and to keep that job after they exit the program," Lukach said.

Students are provided a job coach from the Mahomet-Seymour staff on the job site. The young adults learn their required tasks in the beginning with the assistance of the job coach and eventually learn to complete the task on their own through routine and repetition.

Two of the four current students, Lexi Holmes and Sadie Beachey, will age out of the program during the 2018-19 school year. Holmes works at the Village Garden Shoppe, while Beachey serves Home Depot.

"Lexi goes three days a week (to her job). Slowly in the fall, we will ween a staff member away from her so when she ages out in January, she will be able to be independent," Lukach said. "That's the ultimate goal."

The young adults are employees in every sense of the word. They receive regular evaluations and may even earn a bonus depending on the outcome of the review.

"Lexi is 100 percent happy," Northrup said. "I stopped in there while she was working and she said, 'Mrs. Northrup, this is the best place in the world to work. It's the best place for me. When I work here, I'm so happy. I love to work here.'"

Northrup views Holmes' outcome as a win-win situation, as both her student and the business benefit from the relationship.

"That's the idea of what we're trying to do: integrate our young adults into the community and find jobs that value them," Northrup added. "We want them to be contributing members. They may not be able to work a full shift, but we want them to be able to do what they can do and do it well so that whoever employs them says they do a great job and says, 'I'd love to have them come back next year.'"

Much of the students' schedules revolve around their jobs. Lukach said Tuesday through Thursday students enter the MAYC building and make their own breakfasts, prepare for work by practicing proper grooming habits and ensure their work uniforms are clean and ready.

After work, students may take a 15-minute break and then they are back in the kitchen together to prepare lunch. Each week, students rotate turns preparing the grocery list using the myShopi application. On Mondays, the students visit the Savoy Walmart to shop for groceries and return to MAYC to put the goods away.

"Our joke is that everyone likes to eat so everyone has to help," Lukach said.

Everyone also helps cook and clean up. The student who prepares the grocery list for the week also assigns the remaining students' tasks to assist with the meal.

"Each student has a job," Luckach said. "Who's going to make the pizza, make the salad and make the table?"

The students also learn about budgeting, whether for meal preparations or their checkbooks. Lukach said the students' parents provide them a certain amount of funds for community activities, whether it be a trip to the zoo, the movies or a restaurant.

After lunch, students may participate in other learning activities, such as budgeting or other activities like making a Mother's Day gift.

On Fridays, the students enjoy community outings, whether it be a trip to the Decatur zoo, bowling or the student-favorite trip to Taco John's.

"It's a great place to hang out," student Robert Durst said. "I like going out on Fridays, especially Taco John's."

The one constant for each of the remaining students was their appreciation for not only their jobs but the family-like relationships they established at ATLAS.

"I like to clean the dishes and stove," Beachey said. "I like working at Home Depot."

Aside from her position at the Village Garden Shoppe, Holmes said she enjoys her tasks she performs at ATLAS.

"I like hanging out and doing my 'family job' of taking out the trash," she said.

"I like my new job at Grace Church," student Josh Harper added. "I like grocery shopping."

Lukach said she considers her job a privilege and a wonderful opportunity.

"I've taught almost 30 years, and every day seems amazing with them," she said. "I love coming to work. I'm not one who counts down my days at the end of the school year. I love seeing them learn."

For Lukach, the sky is the limit for her students. She would like to incorporate a student-run coffee shop, candy shop or bakery here in Mahomet.

More than anything, Lukach and Northrup hope the community recognizes their students for their abilities and their can-do attitudes.

"One thing the community needs to know is that this is a special group of students, not because of what some of the things they can't do, but the amazing things that they can do," Northrup said. "People would be surprised if they knew these students personally and knew all of the things they were able to do. It's their abilities that make them stand out and make them great people to be around."

Categories (2):News, Education

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