For many students leaving high school, the uncertainty of their future can be overwhelming.

There are choices between work or continued education, moving or staying at home for a while, paying bills and becoming financially independent.

But students with learning disabilities have fewer options. Some may never be able to live on their own.

That’s where the College Steps program, and the local businesses that participate, come into play.

College Steps helps young adults with disabilities find independence through academic success and work opportunities.

The program’s graduation requirements include having students complete an off-campus work experience or job shadow in the community. 

Four Stowe businesses that work or have worked with students in the program are Green Goddess Cafe, Commodities Natural Market, Stowe Mountain Resort and Websticker, and for these young adults, they’ve been a great help.

Commodities Natural Market

Tiffany Martinez, 27, started life a little premature. Early in her mother’s pregnancy, she was choked by the umbilical cord. Martinez was born by cesarean section at only 28 weeks, and nobody knows for certain how long she was without oxygen, but she had developed apraxia — a motor disorder caused by damage to the cerebellum.

“She was dead when she was born, but they brought her back,” said her mother, Margarita Martinez-Elmore. “The doctors said she would never walk, never talk, but look at her now.”

Martinez is taking classes at Johnson State College in ceramics and photography. She worked at the Johnson Sterling Market for a while, and now works stocking shelves at Commodities Natural Market in Stowe every Thursday.

“I work one-on-one with Nipa,” Martinez says shyly. “I do the cereals, and she stands on the ladder and helps me. I am learning to package the bread too.”

In the small store, Martinez is learning how to better communicate what she needs with her co-workers and how to interact with customers.

“There have been slight communications issues,” says co-worker Nipa Wheatley, who has been supporting Martinez in her internship. “but that’s it. I found it’s helpful to have the same routine each week.”

Wheatley used to live in North Carolina, where Bitty & Beau’s coffee shop hires mostly people with learning disabilities to give them a chance to enter the workforce, and says she’s surprised there aren’t more opportunities in Vermont.

“This program has helped Tiffany a lot. The girl doesn’t leave the house, she doesn’t have friends, She couldn’t read, but now she talks a lot more, and is becoming more socially open,” Martinez-Elmore said.

Martinez’s mother cried when Martinez graduated from the program last year, because she got up to the microphone to speak.

“She has always had a bad case of nervousness. She’s sometimes nervous to a point where she cries, but she did a wonderful job. This program does wonders for her,” Martinez-Elmore said.

Martinez makes an effort and is eager to learn, and when she doesn’t understand, she now asks more questions than she used to.

Websticker

Justin Neal has Asperger’s and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and his mom got him into the College Steps program to push him toward independence and fitting into the fast-paced world.

Neal is interested in directing, editing, digital media and animation, and at Johnson State College, he has enjoyed taking classes in the arts department.

For the last year, he’s had a mentor by his side in every class, helping him keep up with the college learning pace and understand the material. Neal plans to graduate from College Steps in May, and thinks he is ready to go it alone next semester.

“I think it will be pretty cool, but I’m nervous,” Neal said.

Neal has been working at Hannaford Supermarket in Morrisville for five years, and took an internship at Websticker in Stowe last spring through the summer, learning Adobe Illustrator and helping design stickers and decals for clients.

“I have an assistant at Hannaford, but she’s not with me all the time. She visits once in a while, but for the most part I’m independent,” Neal said. “And at Websticker, I had a mentor for a bit, but he stayed outside in case I needed him. It’s cool to learn things on my own.”

Neal was dedicated to figuring out the program, and took the initiative to download it on his own computer so that he could practice outside the office.

After the summer, Neal decided that Websticker wasn’t what he’d want to do with his life, so he’s looking for more opportunities through College Steps for video editing. He has already learned a number of editing tools on his own, and eventually would like to direct commercials and skits.

Neal will graduate with a certificate in animation, and hopes to move up on his own to tackle lighting, video and the other aspects of directing.

Finding understanding

“We want to help people understand that at times if someone is working at a different pace or avoids eye contact, that it could be one of our students and to be supportive as they learn and grow,” said Tori Milne, director of workforce development for College Steps.

“All parties have been supportive at offering our students a chance to learn,” Milne said.

When Milne approached Athena Scheidet, owner of Green Goddess, she jumped at the opportunity.

“Our little boy is 4 and he has autism. He’s nonverbal for the most part, has no expressive language skills, but he knows what he wants and needs,” Scheidet said. “As we raise our son, we think about what the future might be like for him. Will he be independent or have opportunities?”

Milne had a student with high-functioning autism whom she wanted to get an internship at the Green Goddess.

“It was important to have someone here who could do the job, disability or not, and he has done a very good job and fits in well with the team,” Scheidet said.

The student washes dishes for the restaurant, and has had to learn that, in a busy restaurant, not every customer will clean their plate or throw things away the way he would like.

He’s had to find a way to cope, but Scheidet’s husband Tim Callahan “had to say to him that that’s just how things are. The customer comes first, and you can’t be vocal about everything that bothers you because that’s not the social norm,” Scheidet said. “He had to learn what’s appropriate to say, and when.”

Scheidet said it’s cool to see how “neurotypical adults” interact with adults with autism, and how they adjust to each other’s worlds.

With one in 68 kids being diagnosed with autism, Scheidet wishes there were more opportunities like this not just in Stowe, but across the nation.

“I’m glad we could open our door for people to gain perspective and awareness,” she said.

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