Work experience program helps launch students into life
WILLMAR -- Willmar Senior High student Chris Voss watches a big white pickup truck slowly move through the car wash at Walt's of Willmar, and he picks up a fresh towel.
As the pickup rolls slowly off the line, Voss, 21, and a co-worker put on their smiles and get to work, wiping the last drops of moisture off the truck, taking an extra swipe at the shiny chrome bumper.
A little while later, a car comes through and gets the same treatment. The driver opens the door a crack and hands Voss a tip, which he tosses into a jar at his work station.
Voss and his colleagues will see their share of the tips in their next paycheck.
Voss is a participant in a work experience program the Willmar School District offers for students in the special education program. He's worked at several others jobs in the past and joined Walt's this past fall. So far, Voss and his boss both think it's been a good fit.
"I like drying cars off and smiling at the customers," Voss said.
The work experience program is very broad, said Janell Bullard, the district's special education coordinator. Special education students don't fit a single mold, and the program needs to address their individual situations, she said.
Bullard credits the success to program coordinator Dave Cors and his ability to gauge which students will work best in different situations.
Some businesses, like Walt's, are longtime participants in the program. The students are a valuable part of his team, said Jeff Armstrong, a partner in Walt's.
"We treat every individual here the same, and that includes them," Armstrong said. The students punch a time clock and attend staff meetings.
It's a practice that goes back for years. Former owner Walt Gislason said, "We have never had a disabled person work here; we have had some people with more challenges."
Students often work in the car wash, and the "towel guys" have an important job, Armstrong said. "They are the last people in the business that most people see."
Voss is in his last year at Focus House, a post-high school program to help special education students prepare for independent lives. In the program they learn work-related skills, and they leave Focus House with practice in budgeting, scheduling, cooking and basic housekeeping.
Students usually work in the morning and go to high school or Focus House for the afternoon.
The program provides job coaches at some work sites, but Voss didn't have one when he was hired at Walt's.
While visiting Voss at Walt's, Cors said the need for a coach varies. "It depends on the job and the student's skill level," he said. It also depends on the business. Some prefer to have their own employees work with students, and some prefer a coach, at least at the beginning.
Getting the work experience is part of the transition the students are making from high school to the next phase of their lives, Cors said. "What a big jump, to go from high school, where a lot of these kids get a lot of help, to independence."
The work experience opportunities "give them another opportunity to make sure they're ready," Cors said.
For Zach Ludwig and Spencer Martin, both 19, cleaning three mornings a week at the West Central Tribune suits them for now. They work with job coach Deb Bremseth to clean bathrooms and floors and empty garbage. On the other days, they clean and disinfect equipment at the YMCA.
Bremseth said she's been a job coach for more than 10 years and enjoys helping the students try out different types of jobs. The experience they gain goes beyond work skills, too, she said. "They are exposed to the real world."
The Holiday Inn also employs students. Tiffany Garderbring, a senior at WHS who recently turned 18, said she doesn't mind her job cleaning hotel rooms "but there's other jobs out there, too." She had a job at a nursing home and enjoyed that, too, she said. She liked the residents, and "they liked to see me."
The work experience program is positive for all involved, Bullard said. "We are helping businesses, and businesses are helping us," and the experiences help students build confidence and self-esteem.
The program helps show students that "your education can take place outside school walls; it helps them see the relevance of what they're doing."
In most ways, the interests and concerns of these students are the same as any other kid at the high school, she said, and all students could benefit from programs that help them identify their interests.
"There's so much value in helping them determine where they're going to be successful," Bullard said. "There is no job that is not valuable."