Four young people spent eight weeks living, learning, working and relaxing together in the Easterseals Transitions Academy (ETA) from the beginning of June through the end of July.
Aaliyah, Marissa, Thaddaus and Trey shared a four-bedroom unit in Purdue University Fort Wayne student housing for the summer, with support and supervision from Easterseals Arc staff. Their weekends were free time; they could spend them visiting family or friends, and often did. But the program’s schedule kept them busy Mondays through Fridays.
Easterseals Arc designed the program to give them a taste of greater independence while helping them develop many specific skills. They learned cooking skills, including planning menus and shopping for groceries, and social skills they need to live with roommates. They also worked part-time jobs.
Every Monday was devoted to food. They began with a cooking class in the morning and wrapped up with grocery shopping in the afternoon.
Instructor Mike Ringley, who spent 14 years as the general manager of an IHOP restaurant, taught them to prepare an array of meals for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
“I help them plan their menus for the week,” he said one Monday before class. He taught them in a fully equipped commercial kitchen in the Easterseals Arc Hospitality Lab. He has taught other students the basics of restaurant work in the lab, but he described the ETA class as “more teaching life skills” than preparing the participants for restaurant work.
Ringley worked lessons on food safety into every class. After they finished frying hash browns, he reminded them to clean up and disinfect surfaces. They practiced the fundamentals in every class – chopping vegetables and fruit, frying, mixing, measuring ingredients, washing dishes.
As he worked through menu planning with them, Ringley reminded them of the importance of a varied diet. “Each meal is balanced now: a meat, a starch and a vegetable or fruit,” he told them after working out a menu for the coming week. And they enjoyed the results of their work when they ate what they cooked in class.
Throughout their class, they had fun, laughing, celebrating successes, teasing one another. AAliyah earned a dose one morning when she poured maple syrup on the hashbrowns they cooked minutes before. Marissa looked surprised; AAliyah laughed and explained that’s how she’s always had hash browns.
Trey saw the syrup flow and called out, “Abomination! Abomination!” making AAliyah laugh even harder.
On Wednesdays, staff and participants met in sessions designed to build more skills for independent living. Almost anything that concerns the daily tasks of adulthood was fair game, from banking and budgeting to riding city buses to working out conflicts with roommates.
On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, they worked at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Trey and Thaddaus stood a few yards inside the entrance, offering maps of the zoo to every visitor. A short stroll deeper inside the zoo, Marissa and AAliyah staffed a station where visitors could vote, using pennies or other change, for the conservation program they support most strongly. To make sure everyone can vote, the women handed a penny to each visitor.
After lunch, all four found brooms and dustpans and walked paths through the zoo, sweeping up bits of paper or food. As Brynn Sigler, the Easterseals Arc staff member who accompanies them to the zoo, noted, patrolling the zoo for trash takes sharp eyes. “The zoo is really pretty clean,” she said.
Nevertheless, the ETA participants stayed on the move, walking and sweeping quickly. Trey brought zeal to this part of the job. He didn’t stop at picking up trash; he saw a few pieces of gravel on a sidewalk and scooted them back into the planting where they belong. Later, a woman asked him where the nearest restroom was; he found a zoo worker who’d been on the job longer and brought the answer back to her.
“I think it’s going very well,” said Mischa Myers, of the zoo’s human resources department. “They’re able to function very well independently.”
AAliyah said she enjoyed working at the zoo, in large part because it was a job that gave her lots of time with her friends. As for the work itself, she liked the “penny job” best, “because I get to talk to little kids.”
Marissa preferred patrolling with a broom and dustpan. “We have a lot more freedom,” she said. Freedom, she said, is what she liked best about Easterseals Transitions Academy.
“It feels nice to have freedom. I didn’t have to call my mom to ask if I can go out and hang out with friends,” she said.
The program also “teaches you how to live on your own. You get work experience. You learn time management when you have to get up for work,” Marissa said.