Sonoma County program teaches students with disabilities job skills

Devin Gonsalves gets up before sunrise to catch public transit to Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, where he works in housekeeping. He goes to bed by 8 each night, resisting the temptation of video games and television to ensure he doesn’t miss the bus the next morning.

Gonsalves, 21, of Santa Rosa takes his job seriously. He’s enrolled in the Sonoma County Office of Education’s Special Education Transition Program, which provides 18- to 22-year-old students with disabilities the opportunity to develop job skills by placing them at local hospitals, supermarkets, nurseries and other businesses.

“He’s never late. He’s a model student,” said Janet Maurer, a SCOE special education teacher who supervises Gonsalves and a dozen other students at Sutter hospital.

Students in her class work in different sections of the hospital, helping organize and file purchase orders, wash dishes, clean hallways and visitor lounges, and stock linen carts with gowns, pillow cases, towels and sheets.

Paige Wilson, 20, said she already has learned valuable lessons working in the fast-paced hospital kitchen.

“Show up on time. Be ready for work,” she said while taking a short break from loading plates into the dishwasher.

Wilson, who wants to go to college after she completes the program, said she’s also made lasting friendships working at the hospital.

“I love this place,” she said.

Maurer said Wilson didn’t always feel that way.

“She started out nervous and unsure of what to do,” the teacher said. “She’s gained confidence.”

Through the vocational training program, students learn social skills and how to follow directions, while boosting their self-esteem by working alongside employees with different work styles and personalities. They also learn basic skills such as using public transportation to get to work, crossing busy streets, cashing paychecks and budgeting, said Dana Zapanta, the program administrator.

“We do work skills, but we also are doing independent living skills,” she said.

Students get a paycheck twice a month through the program, which serves anywhere from 140 to 160 students, said John Laughlin, assistant superintendent of special education at SCOE. To be eligible for the program, he said students must be in special education and referred by their school districts.

Some students work as much as 25 hours a week. Their wages are set by the U.S. Department of Labor, Laughlin said.

“We teach them to bank the original, old fashion way. We have them go in (to the bank) and fill out a deposit slip,” he said.

Students get to try various jobs. As they gain skills and confidence, they can move up to more independent worksites. That helps them figure out what kind of work they would like to do in the future, Zapanta said.

“A great number of our students not only go on to live independently, but also gain employment,” Laughlin said. “Many of our worksites have hired students.”

The county Office of Education has partnered for more than 35 years with dozens of local businesses, including Cost Plus World Market, Parkpoint Health Club, Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, Petaluma Valley Hospital and Sonoma Valley Hospital. It’s also supported by the state’s WorkAbility program and the Department of Rehabilitation.

Sutter Health has provided hundreds of students with job training for more than three decades, hospital spokesman Shaun Ralston said. As a community hospital, he said it was a “natural fit.”

“The entire staff consider these working students part of our family,” Ralston said. “Patients, staff, students and the community benefit through this thoughtful program.”

Some students are hired as full-time employees after graduating from the program, he said.

Brian Beazell, who is in charge of delivering supplies to units around the hospital, was hired full time at Sutter in 2007 after going through the transition program. He said the program taught him the basics of the job. It also gave him self-confidence.

“I was very shy before. Now, I’m more outgoing,” said Beazell, 30. “It gives you a chance to develop the skills, like showing up to work on time.”

Leticia Perez Ramirez, a 20-year-old Santa Rosa student currently enrolled in the program, said it has taught her how to be independent and prepare for a future job. Perez had been stocking shelves at the hospital’s warehouse, but planned to move to an Oliver’s Market where she’ll be able to take on more responsibilities, such as interacting with customers who need help. She’ll also be working more independently. Students at the store work directly with store management, rather than a SCOE special education teacher only.

“I’m excited and nervous at the same time,” Perez said.

Oliver’s Market has been taking part in the program for at least 15 years, said Eric Meuse, director of the store on Stony Point Road.

“Everyone at this store relies heavily on the students,” he said. “The managers get attached to (them).”

The students appreciate the experience and inclusiveness at their worksites, said special education teacher Dottie Downing, who also works placing students in permanent jobs after graduating from the program.

“It’s life changing for them,” she said. “They’re fully embraced. It does spill out into the community. Our students learn by doing. They don’t learn by reading it in a book.”

The transition program recently expanded by adding as a worksite Gaddis Nursery west of Santa Rosa, where student Lupita Arango-Sanchez worked closely with a handful of classmates to clear dead plants.

She moved quickly, gathering the plants and dumping them into a large container to compost. The 18-year-old Rohnert Park student has worked at other sites, including the county Office of Education, a food bank and a warehouse. She likes the nursery best.

“I want to be outside in the fresh air,” said Arango-Sanchez.

While she’s grateful for the skills she’s learning in the program, she’s also happy for the paychecks.

“I want to get paid so I can go shopping,” Arango-Sanchez said. Like most women her age, she loves to buy clothing, shoes and makeup.

As the oldest of three children, she said she also wants to pitch in with the bills at home.

“I want to have this job so I can have more money to help my parents,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or On Twitter @eloisanews.

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