STEP Provides Real World Experience for Special Needs Student

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COLUMBIA - For Rock Bridge High School senior Jared Gulley, this year Boone Hospital is his classroom. He's working there for school credit thanks to a new program called STEP or Seamless Transition Through Enhanced Partnership. It's aimed at helping students with intellectual or developmental disabilities learn job skills. The hope is that the students will be able to make a smooth transition into the workplace after graduation.

"It will help me. A lot of people who employ people like people who can go out there and help and I have a lot of confidence while I'm doing this so that will help me too. I had confidence before, but I have even more now," Gulley said.

Columbia Public Schools joined forces with Boone Hospital and three other agencies to make the program a reality for six high school seniors.

"This has really helped them understand that it doesn't matter what the disability is they can be good as something and contribute to society just like the rest of us," said STEP coordinator Karen Morgan. Morgan's taught special education for 21 years and said this program is giving the students a chance to see themselves succeed.

"It's been very rewarding to see them become more independent," she said.

For Gulley's mom, Cynthia White, it's all about helping her son secure a positive future.

"To have him have that reality piece where he sees what would be required of him to be able to be self sufficient, that's really important to me as a parent to know that he'll have that ability to take care of himself and he sees it himself," White said.

While Gulley studies sterilization, Hickman senior Andrew Carter's main subject is sleep lab scrubbing.

"It's a hospital you know, people don't want to think you can get sick in a hospital," Carter said when explaining why his job to clean up the sleep labs is important. He said he's learning about "responsibility, dedication, (and) mostly teamwork."

Cleaning is the part of the lesson that's easy to see, but what you might miss is the elbow grease that goes into improving interpersonal skills.

"Communication with my staff and also with visitors and everything they're getting more comfortable," said Environmental Services Supervisor for the hospital Ryan Sobba. He helps supervise some of the students like Carter. "These kids have so much opportunity and potential that's out there for them. They can develop into great people and great workers also."

The hospital also provides a learning laboratory that removes the intimidating social circles you find in high school.

"This is probably the first time that some of them have truly felt accepted and truly felt successful because many times...they might have endured bullying, but here at the hospital they are accepted for who they are," Morgan said.

It's a culture of inclusion, where bosses become friends and where work beats going to school.

"Being with all these great people is the best part of my job," Gulley said.

Students in the STEP program will get help from an ACT Career Specialist when looking for permanent employment after graduation. The students do not get paid for their work, but instead receive school credit.

The STEP program earned the "Honorable Mention" for the Governor's Council on Disability 2012 Inclusion Award. The council will present the award on April 16 in Columbia. Another accomplishment to note; on Monday, a student in the STEP program found full-time employment.