Ready for the real world
Carlos Maldonado Dominguez, who works part time and makes a market-level wage, is proud of his new job as a dishwasher at the Olive Garden restaurant in Gresham. .
"I like washing dishes," he says. "I have good friends here."
Carlos is part of a public school program generally called "life skills" or "adult living." These programs allow students with intellectual or physical challenges to continue to attend school between the ages of 18 and 21, after they have finished high school.
As the program names imply, adult-living students learn the skills they will need to lead independent lives. They learn to keep a home clean, shop and cook, do laundry, handle finances and manage public transportation, or in rare cases, get a driver's license. One key goal is to get the students into jobs or at least ready to work.
Denise Gies, who runs the Gresham-Barlow Adult Living Program that Carlos is part of, says the goal is to "create a scaffolding to meet each student's needs" by incorporating their varied abilities. "We have such a wide variety of students."
Sarah Statham, coordinator at the 32-student Centennial Transition Center (CTC), says "we want them to be as independent as they are able to be. That looks very different for each person.
"The goal is for all the students to be employed before they leave CTC," she adds. "If that isn't possible, then at least they should be connected to adult support services."
The Gresham-Barlow program, which has 25 students, guides students in cooking what they want to eat and what their abilities allow. One student who has challenges in the kitchen is learning to cook frozen meals. Others master red velvet pancakes, burgers, fish sticks or breakfast burritos. One student, Aurora, makes a mean macaroni salad with tuna.
When asked what their favorite or most important part of the Gresham-Barlow Adult Living Program is, students shout out a variety of activities, but "mobility" — in which the students learn to get around town — seems to be a bona fide hit.
"We make sure we get to a place and make sure we don't get lost," offers Andrew.
Jobs well done
On Fridays, the Gresham-Barlow and Centennial programs are generally reserved for outings. The students take turns picking a destination, such as the zoo or the bowling alley, and then do all the planning including transportation and managing finances.
Another student, Brandon, most appreciates the job experiences.
Indeed, a key focus of the programs is job skills. In past years, many of these students would have been shuttled into so-called sheltered workshops. These work centers employed only people with disabilities, isolating them. The workers performed repetitive tasks, often at sub-minimum wages.
Court challenges and changing attitudes have closed most of these sheltered workshops.
"These students will never have the option to go into sheltered workshops," says Gordon Magella, a staff attorney for Disability Rights Oregon.
The school life skills programs stress all aspects of doing a job well, from proper grooming to showing up on time and managing time on the job, to the skills needed to do each job, such as how to properly set a table. But they also emphasize so-called "soft" skills such as greeting colleagues and customers and making eye contact.
These workers aren't just thrown into a job. They are supported by employees of the school district, nonprofit organizations and state and county job and disabilities counselors.
"We want to make sure they are successful," Gies says. The students generally do multiple "internships" that hopefully lead to regular employment.
Employment isn't an easy transition for people who have been in the structured school environment their entire lives and also face intellectual challenges.
Jeff Watson, general manager of the Gresham Olive Garden and Carlos' boss, says workers from these programs make great employees. They are reliable, dependable and careful.
"They are very task-oriented. Once they are shown how to do something, they do it perfectly every time."
Carlos, for example, "is always early, and he'll stay longer if we need him and he can make it work."
Watson says other employees don't shun or become impatient with these workers, but to the contrary are proud of helping them become successful.
Olive Garden also has four to five CTC students come in a couple of times per week to get job experience. The students wipe down chairs, clean menus, vacuum floors and other tasks.
Many other local employer, including J Gelati, Fred Meyer, Ace Hardware, Mt. Hood Community College and others, use the students in internships as well as regular employment.
In addition to washing dishes, Carlos takes on opening tasks for the restaurant such as cleaning the bathrooms, sweeping and mopping, and cleaning the bar.
"They pay you good, and they're nice," he says of the Olive Garden. Another perk, "I like the food. It's good."
Brandon from Gresham-Barlow's program works at the MHCC cafeteria restocking drinks, cleaning tables and organizing soda bottles and cans. Andrew and Clayton, also from Gresham-Barlow, perform custodial work at the college. Several students work at Gresham's Skate World. Students volunteer at Portland Parks & Recreation in East Multnomah County, the Oregon Humane Society and other organizations.
Ace is the place
Nick, from Centennial, took part in an internship with Ace Hardware on Southeast Division Street in Gresham, which hired him as a cashier and floor helper. He rings up customers on the cash register, stocks merchandise, sweeps up and cleans and helps customers find things on the sales floor.
He likes the cashiering part the most.
"I meet a lot of different people and learn the products in the store," he says. "Everyone is nice there."
Nick learned woodworking from his father, car repair and maintenance from his grandfather, and metalworking at Centennial, so he's knowledgeable about many items in a hardware store.
Melissa Durns, also from CTC, has worked part-time at a Fred Meyer store for nearly a year, bagging groceries and helping customers. She's also taking classes at Mt. Hood Community College, which she says is "challenging, but I try not to give up."
She loves her job at Fred Meyer.
"I do my best provide good customer service," she says. "I always ask if they want the meat in one bag or they want double bags."
"My boss there is great," she adds. "She really appreciates that I am always on time and I always call in if I'm going to be late."
Cheerful, articulate and outgoing, Melissa says her favorite parts of the job are "the way I can interact with the customers and interact with my coworkers."
Melissa prepared for her job with a series of volunteer jobs and internships. She volunteered at Marquis Centennial adult living center, Multnomah County Animal Services in Troutdale and other spots.
She appreciates the education and support of the Centennial Learning Center.
"Overall I'm beyond grateful for the support here," she says.
Centennial's Conor McNeil works at an internship at Domino's Pizza.
"I fold pizza boxes," he says "I also fold bread and chicken boxes." He describes the pattern he must stack the boxes in.
Conor also volunteers at Lambert House, an adult day center, setting the tables, pouring water, cleaning up after lunch and drying the dishes.
"It's very great," he says, "it's where elders get together. I like everyone there."
Gresham's ON Semiconductor also participates in job readiness training for the students at the Gresham-Barlow Adult Living Program, but the technology company takes a different approach.
ON donates the bottles and cans with redemptive values from its lunchrooms to the program.
A few students from Gresham-Barlow learn job skills by coming to the ON campus on Northeast Glisan Street, going through security procedures and picking up the bagged containers. Then they cart them to the school site on the Springwater Trail High School Campus.
Patt Johnson, ON's building and site-services manager, says the students must interact with security and learn the sign-in procedures. It also helps the student learn practical skills and "soft skills" such as dependability.
"I meet them at the recycle yard and we load the bus up," Johnson says.
When the students get back to the school, the entire class dons latex gloves and sorts through the cans and bottles to recycle the ones that can't be redeemed for money. The adult living program gets to keep the funds, which amounted to $6,750 last year and will be more this year with the redemption price doubled to 10 cents. The program uses the money for field trips and other costs.
In addition to this program, ON sponsors field trips for the group, including one to the Oregon Zoo in Portland that included transportation, admission and lunch.
Sarah Statham urges businesses to consider hiring these workers.
"Give these guys a chance. These guys are great employees," she says. "They just want a chance like everyone else."