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.