Special needs students return for second year of transitional work program 

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With the beginning of a new school year, there are new classes underway in HISD’s transitional programs for students with cognitive disabilities that train them to find meaningful work and sustainable life situations after graduation.

HISD students participate in classes within the community at the Houston Food Bank (HISD/H.E.A.R.T.), Houston Community College, and Texas Children’s Health Plan (Project SEARCH).

In honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month, we revisited the Houston Food Bank to see how students are doing (see last year’s story here). The second-year pilot program is underway, with four students returning from last year to experience real-world employment, working 40 hours a week from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. They are responsible for finding their own rides to work, and they use METROlift or get rides from family members. 

The four H.E.A.R.T. students, Trevor, LaRonda, Timothy, and Julien, spend a good part of their day in the new Keegan Kitchen, which was previously located off site. Now that the new kitchen has opened, the Food Bank is gearing up to produce 20,000 hot meals daily for Houston children. The kitchen prepares meals for after-school programs, since most schools provide breakfast and lunch. The Food Bank also distributes fresh produce, meat, and dairy products, as well as nonperishable items.

The H.E.A.R.T. students do everything regular employees do, from chopping vegetables to cutting bread to washing trays and utensils. Because the kitchen prepares different meals every day, they are constantly learning new things.

“The students are also taking nutrition classes,” said Jane Borochoff, executive director of the H.E.A.R.T. program. “They will be working in the new test kitchen and taking cooking classes as well. We will be planting a garden here at the Food Bank, and the students will grow and cook their own produce.”

There is a new class of first-year H.E.A.R.T. students, and three graduates of last year’s program have found jobs: Grace is working at a restaurant and doing janitorial work part-time, while Mark has a job stocking shelves, and Juan is a busboy at a new restaurant.

Several of last year’s students have graduated from Project SEARCH at the Texas Children’s Health Plan and are working full-time (see last year’s story here). Ezekiel is working at Bush Intercontinental Airport as a VVC vendor behind the counter and has already been promoted. Rudolpho is working at the Greater Childcare Council of Houston in the accounting department, where he assists in reconciling who has paid and who hasn’t paid. There is a student from the HCC program working at the airport cleaning airplanes, one working at Whataburger, and another at Potbelly Restaurant (see last year’s story here).

“I am so happy they are enjoying the feelings of self-worth and accomplishment that come from building their own relationships and becoming productive citizens in their community,” said Michelle Stantial, the on-site teacher at the Food Bank’s for the HISD/H.E.A.R.T. Transition Program.