Managing life transitions

Camas School District vocational development program, Transition House help students with special needs

Karen Hall, co-owner of the Camas Hotel, chats with intern Aleah Stewart as she waters plants in the hotel’s atrium.

Camas School District vocational development program, Transition House help students with special needs

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Christopher Merritt vacuums floors at Camas Technology Associates. Customers walking into the business are greeted with a big smile and handshake, courtesy of the CHS intern. Looking on is Henry Midles, Life Skills teacher.

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Josiah Schmid washes dishes at K'Syrah restaurant in downtown Camas. He is a student in the CHS life skills vocational development program.

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Karen Hall, co-owner of the Camas Hotel, chats with intern Aleah Stewart as she waters plants in the hotel’s atrium.

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Tim Younger and Mary McFarland combine ingredients for zucchini bread. The Transition House helps students learn cooking and baking, among other skills necessary for independent living.

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Kiersten Leathers, 19, researches recipes for zucchini bread on Pinterest at the Camas Public Library. She is in her first year of the Camas School District's Transition House, which teaches students with special needs daily living skills.

Students with special needs at Camas High School are developing academic, social and vocational skills for life after graduation.Additionally, young adults ages 18 to 21 can also participate in a program that helps them learn the basics of living independently: How to use public transit, obtain job skills, budget, do yard work and navigate a grocery store, to name a few.

Program participants can often be seen around the downtown area, washing windows, interning at local businesses or researching at the library.

At the high school level, students in Henry Midles and Cory Vom Baur’s Life Skills classes focus on academics in the morning, then on social and vocational skills in the afternoon. With the support of the local community, the students receive work experience that can help prepare them for integration into the adult workforce.

Dana Lighty oversees both programs. She is the district’s director of teaching, learning and special services.

“The students we serve have a range of disabilities, from mild to severe,” she said. “It can be with speech, physical, cognitive, emotional or behavioral issues. We are here to help them with these issues. If students are able to function successfully in the workplace, they will be successful in life. We know how critical this job is.”

The high school partners with several local businesses, including Camas Power, Camas World Travel, Magic Scissors, Arco, Burgerville, Camas Hotel, Dairy Queen, Focus Designs, Sears, Lakeside Chalet, Lutz Hardware, Journey Church, Camas Technology Specialists, Camas Public Library, Camas Produce and K’Syrah.

The students also provide custodial service and window cleaning at other local businesses for a nominal fee. All money goes into the school’s ASB account to offset community outing expenses. The program maintains rented space in downtown Camas, which Midles jokingly refers to as “The Office,” after the hit television show.

“The students are really gaining the necessary social aspects as they communicate with other adults in a non-school environment,” said Vom Baur. “Another aspect is the vocational work itself. When some of these kids come to our program, they don’t know how to sweep, vacuum or wipe down counters because no one has ever has asked them. We also emphasize social appropriateness.”

Midles, who built and has overseen the program at CHS for several years, emphasizes to the students that they are representatives of the high school.

“We hammer home that when you go out in the community, you need to behave appropriately,” he said. “We give them guided practice in a real setting.”

Lighty said that inside the walls of the high school, teachers and fellow students are generally very supportive and tolerant.

“In the ‘real world,’ it is not like that,” she said. “People are not going to be as tolerant of inappropriate behavior and the students need to learn that. This also empowers families to realize that students can do things for themselves.”

Aaron Lutz, owner of Lutz Hardware, has had students interns from the Life Skills program for several years. When asked to comment on his experiences for the program brochure that goes out to local businesses, he said:

“In the eight years we have worked with the Life Skills students, we have seen a tremendous amount of improvement in the way the students interact with our customers. Time and again, with each individual student, we have seen exciting results in them becoming more confident in dealing with the public, fellow workers and work assignments. So we highly recommend this program.”

The district-owned Transition House, across the street from Cams Safeway, bridges the gap between high school and the “real world.”

“Our students with special needs who are more independent can benefit greatly from Transition House,” said Laurie Midles, who is married to Henry, and serves as program instructor. “We help them with career exploration and job placement, so that they can be independent or as independent as possible.”

There are eight students at Transition House this year. Their disabilities range from cognitive to physical to emotional. They attend classes at the house from 7:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily. In addition, some attend college, others are serving as interns in area businesses, while others are exploring hobbies such as hip-hop dancing and baking.

Kiersten Leathers, 19, began the program this year.

“I’d like to be either a photographer or a Starbucks barista,” she said. “It’s been good learning job skills, and cooking and baking.”

Jenna Anderson, 19, spends part of the day interning at the Papermaker Preschool at CHS. She is hoping to become certified as a early learning instructor.

“I really enjoy seeing all their different behaviors and how they react to different things,” she said of the preschoolers.

Tim Younger, 19, is in his second year at Transition House.

“So far, I really enjoy the yoga class the most,” he said. “I’d also like to be able to go out and get a job, and being here helps with that.”

Lighty said that the instructors at Transition House and the Life Skills program are truly doing their “life’s work.”

“They take our students with significant needs and prepare them for adult life with fundamental living skills,” she said. “There is no greater gift we can give our kids than to be as successful as possible. I’m proud to work with professionals like this.”

Added Henry Midles, “The community in Camas is just awesome. They have really embraced our kids. At the high school, the staff is very receptive and administrators often come into the classroom, which is really cool. We’re lucky to have a school district and city that cares about our students.”