There are a few words teacher Eric Balholm doesn’t let students use around him. However, these aren’t of the typical four-letter variety.
“We don’t use the words, ‘disorders’ or ‘disabled,'” he said. “The students are very abled, just in unique and different ways.”
Balholm is the Washougal High School Pathways to Independence instructor. The program is for 18-to-21-year-olds. Here, they gain employment skills volunteering in local businesses, with the goal of securing a paying job.
The students also participate in classroom activities to help them learn independent living skills. Federal law requires high schools to have some type of transition program to help students gain experience in the workforce and become more self-sufficient.
Selection for Pathways is done with input from a combined group of staff including the director of special services, school psychologist, special education teachers, and Balholm.
“There are some students that are able to go out and perform the tasks they are asked to do and some that may need extra special attention to their abilities,” he said.
Students work at Dairy Queen, Burgerville, Camas Parks and Recreation, Miss Jaime’s Day Care, Walgreens, Camas Power Equipment, Washougal High School and Hathaway Elementary School kitchens, Columbia Ridge Senior Living and the West Columbia Gorge Humane Society.
“Employers help our students gain experience in the various aspects of the jobs and duties they are asked to perform,” Balholm said. “As they do so, this allows them to gain confidence and improve their understanding of the job. This enables our young adults the opportunity to do more for themselves than before they came into the program.”
Classroom activities include learning about local, national and international current events; and how to be good citizens.
“By doing so, they can carry on conversations with other employees they may work with, enlarging their circle of friends and acquaintances,” Balholm said.
He added that working in local businesses also helps them make connections in the community.
“It’s a great training ground for them,” he said. “They are gaining hands-on experience that will lead them to real jobs in the future.”
Michael Neketuk, 21, has been in the program for three years. Well-spoken and confident, he holds down two part-time jobs, one at Burgerville and the other as a substitute kitchen employee for the school district.
“We are trying to let everyone know that we can do a lot of things,” he said. “We are trying to show off our strengths and ability to work as a team. I want to be self-reliant, and this is the way. When I was able to get the job at Burgerville, it made me feel really good.”
On a recent morning, Neketuk was joined by Nova Delp, 18, and Beverly Carlson, 19, at Columbia Ridge Senior Living.
“I am hoping this will help me get a job,” Carlson said. “We do hard things here. We work hard, but we also play hard.”
Delp, who enjoys working with electronics and circuits, is focused on learning skills that he can translate into real-world employment.
“I want to work as a technician and invent stuff,” he said.
Carlson is a gifted artist who enjoys sketching.
“I would like to be a fashion designer or artist,” she said. “Art is the only activity with no rules.”
Balholm offered high praise for the students’ skills with painting, and noted that they were asked to return to the Camas Community Center after working there previously.
“It was really great to be called back,” Balholm said. “Our kids are very focused when they are given a job to do, and will just keep working until it’s done.”
Upon completing the program, students are ready for employment and independent living. The work experience that they’ve gained often leads to a paying job and other connections within the community.
“One of the mottos we try to live by in Pathways is ‘We do hard things,'” said Balholm. “The idea behind it is that we want to learn as much as we can and remember how to do it for our lifetime. This adds to our skill set. Doing easy things doesn’t stretch us very much, but performing hard tasks helps us grow and improve more thoroughly. Then hard things become easier and this helps build confidence and self-reliance.”