They say good work – and good workers – are hard to find, but a new program in the Richland School District is helping businesses find employees while changing students’ lives in the process.
The Community Based Transition Center (CBTC) within the Richland School District assists special needs students 18 to 21 years old develop skills to become independent and transition into the workplace. The center is located at the Teaching & Learning Administration Center on Keene Road in West Richland.
Most students graduate high school and then go on to college, trade school or into the workforce. For some special needs students, the gap in cognitive learning or social skills presents special challenges after graduation.
CBTC wants to bridge that gap with help from community partners through special internships.
“I want the community to know that we need their help,” said Scott Piippo, a work-based learning coordinator for CBTC. “This would not be possible without them.”
CBTC matches students’ passions with area businesses and provides a hands-on approach to both the students and the business as the students develop functional living skills with community-based learning.
These internships provide opportunities not always available to special needs students, which is critical as jobs can provide purpose, produce social connections and create a sense of accomplishment that contributes to a better overall quality of life.
“These students are looking for the place that they fit in within our community, and it’s really hard when they’re not given at-bats to score runs,” Piippo said.
Preston Morris has been interested in physical fitness since he was 14 years old and dreamed of becoming a fitness trainer.
CBTC matched him with Planet Fitness to help him reach his goal.
“I enjoy working out and I am passionate about that,” said 20-year-old Preston. “I clean machines and equipment, greet customers and sometimes help (personal trainer) Jay train people. I want to learn how to do all the workouts correctly and how to help people and stuff, but I’m still learning about that.”
After graduating high school, Preston wasn’t sure how to approach the workforce given his disability. Xavier Johnson, a CBTC program partner and mentor for Morris, works out at Planet Fitness on George Washington Way in Richland. He approached the staff with the idea of getting involved with the program.
“The epitome of Planet Fitness is judgment free and a place for all, no matter what their struggles are,” said Amani Wilburn, club manager at the Richland Planet Fitness, “so when Xavier pitched this idea, we were excited to find a place for Preston even though none of our other clubs have participated in this before.”
Preston has been with the club for three years. It was an opportunity he could not have found on his own.
“I’m like a family with those people,” said Preston of his Planet Fitness co-workers.
Wilburn said the toughest part of incorporating Preston into the team was figuring out his schedule and creating some structure. To help him be successful, they gave him things to work on outside of internship hours that he could complete with CBTC resources.
Given the opportunity and training, he’s thriving in his role and even helps train groups on Saturdays alongside a personal trainer.
“It’s opened up a lot for Preston,” Wilburn said. “The time invested into making sure an intern is trained properly in their role might be more than an average employee, but the outcome is much greater. We’re part of something bigger than ourselves in the community.”
Wilburn said Preston has improved the culture of the gym for both the employees and the members and plans to hire him as a paid employee.
“I can’t say enough good things about Preston,” Wilburn said. “He’s a shining light and motivates our team and improves the culture at Planet Fitness. People that come into our gym are looking to change their lives and Preston reminds them of that because he is looking to do the same.”
CBTC is a new program within the Richland district. It was created a year and a half ago and currently serves 23 students, though Piippo said he hopes to grow the program.
“As stories like Preston’s come out, I think we’ll get more students and community partners,” he said.
Integrating students into the workplace is only one facet of the program.
The transitional program offers a curriculum that includes mobility and travel training, connections to adult service agencies, meal planning and cooking, shopping, budgeting, recreation access, work skills and community involvement.
A few factors for student eligibility include being age 18-21 and currently accessing instructional placement within the district, eligible for state Developmental Disabilities Administration services and being able to demonstrate safe and independent behavior.
“Underserved students are getting opportunities and skill sets for post-secondary success,” Piippo said.
Just like every student has different needs, CBTC understands that every business has different needs, so the internships aren’t wrapped as one-size-fits-all.
They offer a few different models to best fit the needs of students and the employer. The 1:1 student internships have one student at a job site with support fading as students learn skills and develop independence. The other option is having two to three students working with a job coach to focus on a specific task. Repetition is built while additional tasks can be added.
“We don’t want a transactional relationship,” Piippo said. “We want a transformational relationship.”
To learn more about the program, go to rsd.edu/departments/special-education/cbtc.
Businesses interested in learning how to become a community partner can reach out to Piippo by email: email@example.com.
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