HAWTHORNE, NJ – Four years ago, teacher Danielle Forshay teamed up with Superintendent Richard Spirito and Director of Special Education Jessica Pignatello to fill a need she saw while working as a life skills teacher at Hawthorne High School. With her help, graduates with IEP’s could benefit from continued life skills lessons in order to become a fully functional adult within their community. According to the New Jersey State website, an IEP, “Individualized education program,” means a written plan that sets forth a student’s present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, measurable annual goals, and short- term objectives or benchmarks and describes an integrated, sequential program of individually designed instructional activities and related services necessary to achieve the stated goals and objectives.”
Enter “The Bear Cave.”
The Bear Cave was set up in a house on Lafayette Avenue to provide a safe, controlled setting for students 18 years to 21 years old to work on these skills. Forshay works closely with each student to encourage and challenge them, helping them become responsible for themselves and learning how to be their biggest advocates. Students are admitted based on their IEPs and overall compatibility with the program. Within the walls of the Bear Cave, students develop social skills, learn how to meal prep, fulfill house chores such as laundry, budget petty cash, balance checkbooks, go to the bank, and much more.
To meet their physical education requirement, the students work out once a week at Retro Fitness in neighboring Fair Lawn.
Forshay shared that once treated like the adults they are, they are constantly shocked by their abilities once challenged. The pride that they are overcome with when they’re able to properly use a coupon at the grocery store or cook a meal for their parent at home is something near and dear to Forshay’s heart. “Getting these students ready for the real world to live as independently as possible, and become fully functional adults is what the program is all about,” Forshay said. Each student’s needs are individualized, and Forshay exposes them to all the opportunities that are out there for them.
The “Bear With Me” program is a graphics t-shirt enterprise, where students use their math and social skills to fulfill t-shirt orders for groups around the town of Hawthorne. They take pride in seeing their shirts worn by people within their community, and Forshay said that the support from the town rallying around her students is extremely special. Prior to the COVID pandemic, the students would host a “Bear Cave Cafe” once a month, proudly serving meals they cooked themselves to people within their own neighborhood.
The Bear Cave follows the district calendar. In the summer the students are assisted with job placement at nearby nonprofit organizations. Their pay is funded by Passaic County One Stop through grants. Many students will likely be placed within the school district this summer, assisting maintenance and IT staff in preparation for the new school year.
Some students have disabilities such as autism or traumatic brain injuries. Their progress inspires Forshay every day. “It’s unbelievable to see their growth and confidence,” she said. “We teach them simple things that aren’t so simple to them… Things we take for granted, like ordering at a restaurant, tipping, or even learning to not take jokes literally.” She shared how wonderful it is to see the support of local businesses who get to know the students and embrace them fully. Forshay hopes that The Bear Cave will continue to grow and provide this invaluable support for adult students in need.
Getting The Bear Cave up and running and making it a success is not a one person job by any means. Forshay told TAPinto Hawthorne, “It’s an amazing program, but you know the saying… ‘it takes a village!”
In addition to Pignatello and Spirito, there is the support staff which plays an integral part in the students’ success. “I receive so much help from my support staff,” Forshay said. “The job coaches, Danielle Luecht, John LaForge, Alexander DeFrances and the transition coordinator, Joseph Walker, all help make The Bear Cave what it is today.”