Katie McLaughlin, 20, and Jerad Laitinen, 19, spent part of an afternoon last week making treats for the dogs at Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Services. They spread dog food on hamburger buns and passed them out to the dogs, each taking turns passing the bun under the cage door and talking to each pet.
They are at the shelter gaining work and volunteer experience through East Valley’s Success Toward Adult Responsibility program, which works to help students between 18 and 21 years old transition to adulthood. Each has some sort of disability, whether they are intellectually disabled or are autistic. They are all high-functioning students and are learning to become advocates for themselves.
Each student has completed high school, but they won’t get a diploma until they complete the STAR program. They could be there for four years or just one, depending on the student’s needs.
“It’s not a perfect fit for everybody,” said teacher Heidi von Marbod. She said students’ individualized education program team and the student’s family sit down to discuss goals to make sure it is a good fit for the student.
She said the students are learning life skills. They could be living by themselves, with parents or in a group home.
“For every student it’s different,” von Marbod said.
This year, it’s taught at East Valley Middle School in connecting rooms. In previous years, the program has been housed in an apartment and a church. While the program is under the umbrella of the high school, the middle school location provides access to Spokane Transit Authority – there is a bus stop right outside the building.
During a recent class, students voted on a lunch menu for the next week and assigned duties. They plan their meals using coupons and specials they find in the newspaper. On Fridays, they make the meal from scratch.
They met with Craig Sicilia of People First, an organization that helps those with disabilities become self-advocates. The group of 10 students launched a discussion about the upcoming presidential election and the merits of each candidate.
Von Marbod and her teaching team, Brenda Brown and Malinda Aldendorf, put the students in contact with the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, take them to job fairs, bring in speakers from The Arc of Spokane and Therapeutic Recreation Services.
They also bring in speakers from STA to help the students learn to use the bus to get to their jobs.
“This opens up a whole new world for my students,” von Marbod said.
After lunch, students travel to work sites – each has been assigned a volunteer job to get work experience. They could go to businesses such as Fred Meyer or Hastings, or they could help at nonprofit organizations such as SCRAPS. Some work with the teen parent nursery at the high school or help out at Trentwood Elementary School during lunch. Others work at K Salon and the Liberty Lake Vet Clinic and Rosauers.
Amy Tellinghusen, work-based learning coordinator at the high school said at Safeway, one of the STAR students was later hired.
“She started out as an intern,” Tellinghusen said.
Tellinghusen said that although the businesses and organizations don’t get a tax credit because the students aren’t paid, it is a mutually beneficial partnership.
“They typically find the students are much more capable than they originally thought,” she said. STAR students tend to lift morale with other employees and the STAR students learn valuable work skills. But finding businesses can be tough.
“For every yes I get, I get 10 nos,” Tellinghusen said.
At SCRAPS, Laitinen and McLaughlin said they are enjoying their time in the STAR program.
McLaughlin is in her second year with STAR. She has learned about cooking and managing money. Aside from her work at SCRAPS, she also works at Walgreens where she said she gets to do everything but use the cash registers.
Next year, she plans to attend Spokane Falls Community College and take some of the People Accessing Careers and Education classes, courses for people with disabilities.
Laitinen is in his first year with STAR and hopes to attend PACE classes as well. Along with SCRAPS, he helps the custodians at lunch at Trentwood Elementary.
“He’s just a hard worker,” Brown said.
For the staff at SCRAPS, the help the students give them is valuable.
“We have so many things that we have to do,” said Janet Dixon, SCRAPS Hope Foundation development coordinator. “We’re just so grateful to have them come in.”