Sunday, July 14, 2002

Businesses teach students skills for life


GAS CITY -- Josh Barker works just a couple hours a week at Video Stop on Main Street.

But he gets a whole lot done.

"He cleans the window sills," said Pat Greenburg, job coach for Mississinewa High School's Life Skills Community-Based Work Experience program for developmentally disabled students.

"He cleans the arcade-type machines, the candy machines. He cleans and fills the pop machine. He fills the crane machine with stuffed toys -- that's his favorite job. There's like a silver railing that kids tend to hang on. He'll clean all the fingerprints off of it.

"Oh, there's all kinds of jobs he does. He'll dust the televisions. He puts the quarters from the candy and arcade machines into rolls for them. He puts price stickers on videos they're going to sell."

Barker's pay: A free movie rental at the end of his hour-long shift -- and a chance to learn about work in the real world, gain independence and interact with people.

"It doesn't take any time out of my day to help these kids do what they're doing," said Jennifer Watson, manager at Video Stop, which has partnered with Ole Miss for a number of years to provide developmentally disabled students with job experiences. "They like it. And it helps us. They do a lot of the little stuff that you don't always have time to do. If it weren't for Josh, our TVs would get dusted once every I don't know how often."

Mississinewa needs more businesses like Video Stop to give students like Josh a chance.

The school's Life Skills class will be bigger than ever this year with 18 students enrolled -- compared to 11 last year, Greenburg said. Through the Community Based Work Experience program, each student is sent to a job site for about an hour twice a week.

All that's required of businesses, basically, is a job task or two.

"The businesses do not have to provide anything," Greenburg said. "We just need some type of job assignment, some type of task they want done. I will do the rest. I will train the students. I will organize it so the student understands step by step what they need to do."

A number of Gas City area businesses and organizations have participated in the program every year since it started 12 years ago, including Gas City Utilities, Gas City Hall, the Gas City Library, and Corey's Laundry and Tanning.

"They're all sweet kids," said Frankie Chandler, an attendant at Corey's for the last 15 years. "They clean the washers and the tables and the dryers."

Chandler said it brightens her day to be around the Life Skills students.

"It's just to help the kids out and help them get around people," she said. "They work so hard. I've loved every one of these kids. They bring me Christmas presents."

Greenburg said she's not sure why Mississinewa's Life Skills class is so much bigger this year, but she expects the trend to continue. Although job sites don't have to be in Gas City, they need to be close enough so that the school can provide transportation. Some other businesses involved last year include Best Western, Twin City Health Care and Twin City Laundry.

Video Stop liked Barker so well the business is allowing him to work over the summer, said Jennifer Watson, manager. Barker, 16, has a lung condition and uses a mobile oxygen tank. Next year, Barker could be placed at the Gas City Library, Greenburg said, so that he can gain additional skills.

"It's so exciting to watch the shy, awkward, unorganized student mature into the confident employee," she said.

Down the street at the Gas City McDonald's, owner Larry Hartford hired a former Life Skills student about a year ago. Ryan Acord works about 20 hours a week on a variety of janitorial tasks.

"At first Ryan was unpaid, doing it as part of a school class," said Hartford, who has worked with Life Skills students for several years. "But after a while, he was actually earning his keep. You can't just be a charity. It's a business. Once he started being productive, we started paying him.

He's reliable," Hartford said. "He's a good kid. He's going to be here a while. Today it's so hard to find good help."


JEFF MOREHEAD / Photo editor

ON THE JOB -- Josh Barker, 16, washes windows Thursday at Video Stop in Gas City. Barker, a Mississinewa High School junior, is participating in the Life Skills Class employment training program.


FOCUSED WORKER -- Josh Barker fills the crane machine with stuffed toys Thursday at Video Stop in Gas City.