Transition Center gives disabled students life skills
By Tony Graf email@example.com October 28, 2012 2:00PM
Judy Wiedmeyer (right), chief deputy for the Will County Clerk, assists transition center student Jillian Vicic (left) as she casts her ballot during a demonstration on the election process at the Joliet Township High School Transition Center Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2012, in Joliet. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 30, 2012 6:17AM
JOLIET — Larry the Turtle swims around the aquarium in his new home, the Transition Center for Joliet Township High School.
“Do you want to feed him, Malik?” Laura Lopez says to student Malik Phillips.
“He’s like, really excited,” Phillips says as the turtle goes after the food floating on the water.
Phillips is a student with disabilities who attends the new Transition Center on Collins Street in downtown Joliet. At this facility, Phillips and his fellow students get additional training in daily living and vocational skills they will need beyond their senior year in high school.
Students here prepare food, do laundry, maintain home-like settings, care for pets, and participate in community-based activities and settings. They learn independent-living skills, workplace skills and social skills. Students attend based on individual plans, created with each student’s goals and strengths in mind.
The center serves the students after their senior year until the day before their 22nd birthday, trying to capture the excitement of that newfound independence after high school.
In the past, the district had transitional services for students in this age group. But those students had to receive them at the district’s high schools. Now the district teaches students about life beyond high school — in a place beyond a high school campus.
“The importance of the program is far-reaching,” said Edna Brass, director of special services for the district.
Just like all other students, these young people have said a bittersweet goodbye to the bustling hallways and bell schedule of a traditional high school. Now, with peers their own age, they are taking the next step in life.
“This is providing them with an age-appropriate transitional program,” said Becky Kemp, program coordinator at the new center.
“The district has provided us with a place and the freedom to be able to do a lot of different things that you can’t do in a traditional setting,” said Maria Georgantas, district transition coordinator.
Larry the Turtle is a pet in a home-like setting at the center. Independent living is an important lesson for many students with disabilities in need of more transitional services.
Lopez, a teacher at the center, watches Phillips feed the turtle — a lesson in caring and maintenance.
“They really take care of him,” Lopez said. “We got him three or four years ago.”
That was during high school days. Now many of these students are learning to have their own pad — or turtle shell, depending on how you look at it.
One day, some students will take these lessons and apply them to their own apartments and jobs. Other students have disabilities that prevent independent living, but allow a sheltered workshop experience.
Which track is appropriate for which student? Following federal law, the school district assesses each student and creates an individual plan. The goal: Help these young men and women go as far as their skills will take them.
“The exciting thing is that every individual student is given a questionnaire and survey, and assessed to see exactly where they’re going to go,” Georgantas said. “Our dream is that they all are going to go on to further training, further education or full-time employment, independent living, wherever is appropriate for the student.”
“We’re going to make sure we have all those connections in place, those opportunities for them, so they can be fully integrated into our communities, as much as possible independently,” she said.
And the district has made some important connections: the Joliet Park District, Abri Credit Union, Trinity Services, Cornerstone Services and the Will-Grundy Center for Independent Living.
With these agencies, students get opportunities for job shadowing and work. And the district is seeking more partnerships.
Larry the Turtle has been a friend for several years, but students need to come out of their shells, and the district knows that.
Phillips works in recycling and shredding paper at the University of St. Francis, visiting the Joliet campus during the week.
The Project Discovery program gives students a chance to choose which field interests them the most. Students have chosen food service, office and retail jobs, so the staff formed classes within the center for training in these areas.
Students continue to learn reading and math through lessons that are integrated into the practical skills.
Students here are old enough to vote, and they are learning how. In September, students got a visit from the staff of Will County Clerk Nancy Schultz Voots. Staff members showed how to mark ballots properly, and conducted a mock election to prepare the young voters for their role in democracy.
Also in September, students prepared food for a parent open house and a program fund-raiser. to support learning activities.
Students learn phone etiquette while attending the Transition Center. Terry Williams, a student, answered a phone call while Lopez was instructing students.
LaTaja Sanders is learning home-maintenance skills at the center. However, Sanders has a great future in the tourism industry, if her whirlwind tour of the center is any indication.
“Here’s our lockers, for all our baloney.”
“Here’s the refrigerator for your cold stuff.”
“This is the dining room table for eating.”
“This is where I get to wash the dishes, make everyone happy.”
“Clock is where you register, so you don’t get fired.”
“I love to get a thousand pennies.”
Sanders is learning about responsibility and rewards. And she has fun collecting the Canadian pennies that appear once in awhile.
Sanders is working hard in training
“I like to do everything and set everything up — I can do everything without anyone telling me,” she said.
The great beyond
Phillips, Sanders and all these students have been through a graduation ceremony at Joliet Township High School. At the end of their senior year, they received a certificate of completion, and they took the walk.
“So they participate in the pomp and circumstance, get a certificate of completion, come over here, and then they’ll actually receive the diploma the day before they graduate,” Kemp said.
At the center, there is no set schedule for graduation. Some students will be here until the eve of their 22nd birthday. Others will gain enough skills to leave earlier. This is where individual goals and individual assessments come into play.
At this new center, students learn how to be industrious, courteous, organized. Most importantly, they affirm their human dignity and their human destiny — and they gain the freedom to grasp it.
“So nice to meet you. Hope to see you soon. Come back again,” Sanders said. “May your dreams come true.”