Ready and willing to work

DOWNEY - They may be likened to a group of soldiers awaiting further orders from a caring, solicitous commander. At this moment, a group of 60 eager 16 to 22-year old special needs students who have been attending Downey High, Warren High, and Columbus High, are awaiting word that a business or an organization has agreed to take them on for a specified period during the school day, usually from 8 to 11 a.m., to help with simple, routine tasks such as packaging merchandise in the warehouse, organizing store shelves, etc.--in the case of a store such as Big Lots--or doing routine office tasks in an office environment. The students belong to a program called the Special Education Work Experience program run by career vocational education specialists Cindy Salceda and Melanie Adams. They work under the auspices of DUSD's department of Career Vocational Education for special needs students. Program headquarters is located at Downey High School.

Salceda's primary responsibility is the 16-18 age group (numbering 20 students from DHS and 10 students from WHS), while Adams' is the 18-22 age group coming from the Columbus campus' Adult Transition Program, which teaches such things as how to budget, survival sills, using public transportation, acting in restaurants and other public places, etc.. The areas of responsibility overlap.

The purpose of the work experience program is to give the special needs students the opportunity to participate in a meaningful hands-on work experience, to give them a taste of a real work environment. In so immersing them in the rhythm of the workaday world, it is hoped that the students can gain familiarity with actual work situations and pick up skills they will need when they actually go looking for future employment. Salceda says, "We would like every student to leave school with some type of work experience that will promote independence and help with their transition into adulthood." By law, a special needs student falls under the care of the state upon reaching the age of 22.

The program had actually been in operation for 15 years with the participation of Big Lots and for a lot less amount of time with Embassy Suites. Big Lots' involvement was interrupted in mid-December last when the local store was confronted by the company's Columbus, Ohio headquarters with liability issues. For reasons not entirely made clear, the program has had to live with the status quo, even as the Career Vocational Education department is renewing its appeal to the business community and other sectors to accommodate the students.

The department meanwhile has made it clear that the students are fully insured by the Downey Unified School District.

The benefits of the program go both ways. While benefiting the students tremendously, it also clearly gives the sponsoring party material as well as psychic advantages. As these are "fully-functioning" students (described as "able, well-balanced, and well-trained workers"), Salceda says their classroom instruction, training and coaching will have predisposed them to listen to and carefully follow instructions when they report to the work sites. Besides, they are always accompanied on the job by their supervisor/job coach. This frees regular workers or employees from their usual posts during the duration of the students' work periods, enabling the former to perform other meaningful work on the work floor or office. This could generate, obviously enough, savings (in time, labor) for the company/organization.

The group continues to grow in number, says Salceda. The program is aiming to inspire positive response from local businesses like hospitals, manufacturing firms, fast food restaurants, and small businesses to employ these 'employables'-so that, she says, they will gain experience in a variety of occupational and professional careers, to learn the burden of responsibility at work, acquire good work habits, develop a positive attitude towards work so necessary for successful employment anywhere, and otherwise explore occupations and /or gain information to make better career choices.

"We need to expand the program," said Salceda. "And we're appealing to business and other sectors in the community to help the program succeed."

Indeed, for sponsoring firms, it's an opportunity to demonstrate social consciousness and concern. For the eager and hopeful students, it's a wonderful chance to take further meaningful steps towards cultivating traits of independence and otherwise becoming productive adults in society.

Examined more closely, it looks like a win-win situation.

"To help our program grow," says Salceda, companies/organizations are urged to contact: Melanie Adams at 562-869-7301, ext. 5534 or e-mail or Cindy Salceda at 562-869-7301, ext. 5564 or e-mail

********** Published: January 24, 2013 - Volume 11 - Issue 41