GOSHEN—On a Friday afternoon, Lori Rodriguez, 18, and Christopher Ullrichs, 20, both students at the Including Communities program in downtown Goshen cross the street on their way to their internship at Happy Buddha Yoga.
“Is it good to cross right now?” their para professional, Amy, asked at the corner of West Main Street and North Church Street.
“Nope,” said Rodriguez.
“Why not?” the Amy asked.
“Cause that’s a…”
“…a hand,” Ullrichs finishes for Rodriguez, pointing at the red blinking crosswalk light.
Ullrichs and Rodriguez are two of 10 students in the Orange-Ulster BOCES (Boards of Cooperative Educational Services) program that started last November in downtown Goshen. Including Communities pairs students with disabilities with Goshen businesses to develop their job skills through internships.
The downtown classroom next to Not Just Bagels serves as a bridge for 18 to 21-year-olds as they transition to the real world, or, as the program’s principle, Jodie Maassen puts it, once the school bus doesn’t come anymore.
The program was the idea of two teachers at the Chester STRIVE program who started wondering what was next for their students once they graduated. The STRIVE program serves students with Autism, Aspergers Syndrome, and Pervasive Development Disorder.
Jaime Paddock, one of those teachers, said they pitched the idea to the BOCES administration, who were “very receptive,” and that gave them the green light to start visiting potential intern sites.
They now have eight regular sites and several places where the students work on an as-needed basis in the Goshen community.
In 2014, 83 percent of people with a disability were unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition to getting the students ready to join the work force, the program teaches them soft skills like making eye contact, saying please and thank you, and knowing when to cross the street.
“I cannot video model how to cross the street,” said Sue DeGeorge, one of the program’s teachers, explaining the advantages of teaching in the community. “There’s so many times where, we are there, and we’ll wait 10 minutes until [they] are ready to cross that street because I’m not going to be with that student and I have to make sure they’re going to make the right choice.”
In between internships, the teachers use classroom time to go over skills the students need for their jobs, as well as practical things, like how to balance a checkbook, order food, and public speaking.
There are four para professionals who accompany the students to the internships, but the goal is to have them become as independent as possible. DeGeorge shows a set of laminated cards on a key ring they have in the classroom that she calls job cards. Once they complete a task, they cross it off on their card.
“It helps them stay focused and on task,” DeGeorge said. “The least communication with the job coach is what we want.”
Rodriguez and Ullrichs work under Charleen Predmore, Happy Buddha Yoga’s owner, watering the plants, fixing the stings of lights that decorate the walls, shaking out the rugs, and cleaning the yoga mats.
Predmore calls them her friends and teachers, and said she would gladly hire them if she had the budget.
“It’s been like the greatest experience of my life,” she said. “I went to give back to my community and it’s [turned into] this beautiful partnership.”
Once a week the entire class does yoga at her studio, and since they started last November, she said the progress they have made “blows my mind.”
The teachers said one of the things the internships have revealed is just how capable the students are, both to the surprise of the parents and the teachers.
“In their own homes, parents just feel that the students have certain capabilities and they honestly don’t allow them to do more than they think that they can,” DeGeorge said. “Once they’re out there in the community, they surprise you with the things they can accomplish.”
BOCES does work with companies like Shoprite and CVS to put students in a working environment, but what is different about this program, Maassen explains, is how concentrated it is. Most students have several intern sites that they rotate through five days a week, as opposed to one or two days a week in the other programs.
In addition to Happy Buddha, Rodriguez and Ullrichs work at Kennett School of Gymnastics, Rodriguez at the Goshen Food Pantry, and Ullrichs, who one day hopes to open restaurant, at Catherine’s Restaurant and Pub.
So far they have received positive feedback from the internship sites and parents, the teachers say, and they hope that the program expands to the student’s home communities in the future. The students come from all over the county: Warwick, Middletown, Port Jervis, Pine Bush, Washingtonville, and more.
“[My hope is that] that we can continue to expand our partners… and the program itself continues to expand within other communities,” said Paddock.
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