Wayne Worthy has a nameplate on the door of his office at RE/MAX real estate. Edan O’Neal was voted the most dependable employee at Presbyterian Hospital. Ricky Barrett may soon have his dream job at Southwest Airlines.
These students, along with a dozen more, are learning about life outside the classroom through the Vocational Achievement Class at Lake Highlands High School.
The program, now in its third year, is designed to help students with emotional and physical developmental disabilities adjust to the working world. During their last two years of high school, students serve apprenticeships at various organizations, and after graduation, they begin working for real.
Once enrolled in the program, they are entitled to VAC services until their 21st birthdays.
“After interviews, testing and VAC qualification of a student, we determine future goals,” says vocational achievement coordinator Debbie Wilkes.
“We then provide the appropriate classes for students to learn the skills necessary for their chosen careers.”
Once students complete the specialized classes, Wilkes helps them find jobs, provides on-the-job training and aids in accessing transportation.
But that’s just the beginning.
Making frequent visits to the job sites, Wilkes works not only with the students, but also employers such as Missy Vanderbilt, part owner and broker of RE/MAX real estate.
“This program is invaluable, and Wayne Worthy has been a delightful addition to our staff,” Vanderbilt says. “He has learned all the office machines, including the computer, assisting our agents with a variety of jobs.”
When Vanderbilt spoke of Worthy’s dependability and conscientiousness, she was reminded of an instance when he missed his bus.
“He walked as fast as he could to the office,” she says, “which is at least a mile from the bus stop, and made it to work on time.”
Ricky Barrett is a full-time employee at Jiffy Lube on Campbell Road, but hopes that he will soon join a Southwest Airlines aircraft cleanup crew.
“I love to wash airplanes,” Barrett says. “I worked at a private airport, but I like big planes better.”
Ricky’s mother, Nancy Barrett, believes the program is providing her son a good future.
“Working in an adult environment has helped to calm his autism,” Barrett says, “and has made him feel like a regular person, which is very important to Ricky.”
Edan O’Neal is in her second year as an office assistant at Presbyterian Hospital, where Scott Lackey also works for pay, four hours daily in the environment services department. He spends another four hours a day as a volunteer in the hospital’s hotel.
“This program is excellent from an employer’s standpoint,” says Jan Sexton, senior director of human resources for Presbyterian. “It serves as a bridge for employers becoming acclimated to the American Disabilities Act.”
“The success of this program is due solely to the commitment, contagious enthusiasm and philosophy of the dream makers’ behind it – specifically Debbie Wilkes and her assistant, Lona Crabb,” Sexton says.
Wilkes, however, modestly credits RISD board members Bobbie Dingess and Judy Neslage who, she says, “are receptive to innovative ideas.”
“Every person on this planet has gifts and talents,” Wilkes says, “and it is our responsibility as co-habitants to help find those gifts and use them.”