Pictured are T110 staffers. In the back, from left, are Jennifer Rohde, Lynette Arkins, and Kelly Jo Raether. (Submitted photos)

Making the transition from high school to adulthood is a considerable challenge. When you are a young person with a disability that transition can be even more daunting.

For the past seven years, School District 110’s Waconia Transition Program has been helping young adults make the transition from an educational setting to living and working as independently as possible in the community. The program has served more than 100 young people over the years with a range of needs or disabilities, such as developmental cognitive disability, autism spectrum disorder, health impairments, physical impairments and learning disabilities.

Students enrolled in the program, called T110, are ages 18-21 with an active individualized special education program and who demonstrate a need for continuing their program in one or more transition areas. Many students might march with their own high school graduating class this spring, then will enter the program and have a second graduation with their peers when they are ready to make the transition to more independent living, explains Jenni Sebora, Transitions teacher.

Instruction in the transition program is based on students’ individual needs, she said. Students enrolled in the program typically meet each morning in the Waconia Enrichment Center at District 110 offices, but from there life becomes their classroom.

Students come and go. Some go to jobs or internships. Others might attend vocational training, or career and technical education classes. There are also opportunities to develop independent living skills, social skills, and recreation/leisure skills and wellness – many of them skills that most of us take for granted.

The school district and the community have been very supportive of T110, notes Kelly Jo Raether, work experience coordinator, and there many opportunities for young people to develop skills and experience within the schools and at local businesses and organizations.

For example, within the district, T110 students assist with the Nutrition Services program, helping out in school lunchrooms They also assist with some Community Education Kids Company events and operate a cookie cart where they sell snacks.

In the business community, there are students working at Mackenthun’s, Dollar Tree, Walgreens, Ground Round, Culver’s and the Chamber of Commerce to name a few. There are also students doing custodial work at Laketown Gymnastics or helping in the Hennepin County Park District at Gale Woods Farm. Some assist in the dining room at local care centers like Westview Acres, where they also visit with senior residents and play games.

On a broader vocational level, the T110 class has toured businesses like Microsoft, Amazon and Shutterfly to learn about jobs available. The Transition Program also partners with Opportunity Partners, an agency that works with people with disabilities to provide training – for example, sales associate training to students at Waconia Walgreens. Also, Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, which offers a custodial training platform that covers operation of equipment like scrubbers and waxers.

There are also T110 students going to Southwest Metro Intermediate District to take technical classes in programs like cosmetology, health careers, graphic design and construction. One recent T110 grad became a welder.

Beyond vocational skills, T110 is also about preparing students to be as independent as possible.

From a day-to-day life perspective, students get instruction in cooking, laundry, making a bed and other household activities; budgeting, writing a check and paying for purchases; interviewing and preparing for jobs – even actions like setting a thermostat, responding to a smoke alarm and pumping gas. Some take driver’s training and get their license, others don’t.

“We often get comments from parents and observers like ‘I wish I had learned that when I was in school,’ or ‘How can I get my kids to do this,’” Raether said.

“A major part of our job is helping students and families get connected with various county and state resources regarding vocational and independent living,” Sebora said. “So, we do a lot of tours of different services, resources, businesses to learn about what’s in our community and how to access services and resources, such as banks.”

From an overall living perspective, T110 students also get instruction in nutrition, recreation and wellness, and establishing healthy relationships. And there are activities to develop healthy habits and social skills, such as walking at Safari Island, lunch out, bowling and other outings. Students also participate in a simulation program called Reality Store, where they walk through scenarios and make decisions about their careers, budgets and lifestyles.

“We’re mentors, not teachers,” Raether said. “Students call us by our first names and we try to treat them as young adults, giving them as much independence as possible. But we’re also like mother hens – always worried about and looking after our children.”

There is no homework, but each T110 student has a transition plan and sets his or her own goals. When students achieve goals and a transition team determines they are ready, they graduate from the program.

Some go on to college, others on to jobs and maybe their own place to live.

One recent T110 grad was excited about getting his own apartment, and holds down not one but three jobs.

“It’s rewarding to see these young people problem-solving, taking on responsibility, and the excitement they get doing it,” Sebora said. “Independence feels good!”

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