John stocks shelves, mops floors and does other general housekeeping tasks at the Walgreens store in DeKalb.
He’s not on the store payroll; think of it as more of an internship. He is gaining work experience and learning life skills like being on time and taking orders from a boss.
John is a student with autism at Camelot School in DeKalb. The school’s vocational program places students like him in unpaid work situations with businesses around the area.
Under Illinois law, schools can provide services to students with disabilities until age 22. At that point, students age out of the school system and are largely on their own.
“We want them to get as many job skills as possible so they can gain employment after graduation,” vocational coordinator Dana Wyzard said.
Through the program, the students gain work experience, skills and professional references. They are insured through the school, and a Camelot staffer accompanies each student to supervise them while they work.
“We want them to become independent, but we do have someone there to say, ‘You missed a spot,’” Wyzard said.
There are 18 students ages 18 to 22 currently in the 3-year-old program, Wyzard said. Most have been diagnosed with autism, though a few have been diagnosed with other social-emotional disorders. One of its two graduates was recently in touch to let coordinators know he has several job interviews lined up.
Businesses benefit from the program, too. Bill Jahnke, store manager at the DeKalb Walgreens, said he would “absolutely” recommend the program to other businesses.
“Things get done that sometimes don’t get done,” he said. “And it’s nice for the employees in the store. They all like working with John. He’s a really good kid, and it’s great for store morale.”
Other local businesses participating in the program include The Grand Victorian, Sports of All Sorts, TAILS Humane Society, Hope Haven, Feed’em Soup and the Kishwaukee Family YMCA, Wyzard said.
“We match the student who will work the best in that situation with the employer,” she said. “For example, the student working at Walgreens has to be OK with bright lights and crowds. At Hope Haven, he’s wiping down tables during down times when there are fewer people around, so that job is OK for students who are sound sensitive.”
Most employers have the students do basic housekeeping tasks like dusting, vacuuming and cleaning windows. But they’re learning life skills, too – if you have to be at work at 9, you learn to get up and manage your time in the morning. They also learn the importance of follow-through – if your boss gives you a job to do, you can’t walk away in the middle because you’re bored. Those are important lessons in independence for any teen to learn.
Businesses interested in learning more about the program or in participating can contact Wyzard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 815-981-4667.