At the start of the year, Colleen Tendall spent days begging businesses to give her special needs students a chance to learn job skills.
She wasn’t even requesting her students be paid, the Van Meter high school special education teacher said. All she wanted was a place where her students could gain practical work experience for a few hours two days a week.
For the last few years, the students in her Special Education Functional Program had been working at their school’s concession stand serving coffee and hot chocolate to students using a donated Casey’s cappuccino machine. They would charge students $1 for a hot drink, put the lids on the cups and learn how to manage the money.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and the stand was shut down. She could tell her students were hurting, she said, and noticed they were regressing when it came to learning job skills.
So, in January, she started looking for other opportunities to broaden their experiences outside the classroom. But one business after another, she was turned down.
Until Kristen Vrieze picked up the phone at the Mills Civic Hy-Vee in West Des Moines.
Vrieze, the store’s customer care and education manager, welcomed three of Tendall’s students at the beginning of March. She trained them as though they were employees, giving them a store tour so they would be familiar with its layout and showing them a video to help them become familiar with the company’s history.
“We felt it was a great opportunity for us to be able to work with these kids and have them work with us and we would be able to give them something that they would be able to hold onto for the rest of their lives — possibly even build careers,” she said.
Students can explore areas of interest at Hy-Vee
Tendall started the program about three years ago to teach students with significant special needs skills such as cooking and how to socialize and use an ATM card. Every year since she began, she’s been looking for ways to take the program a bit further.
Now, instead of more routine tasks like stuffing envelopes, the students are able to explore areas of interest at the store every Wednesday and Friday.
“It’s brought such excitement into their lives and they have something to talk about,” Tendall said. “They’re so proud and they’re learning good skills.”
Though many aspects of the students’ store training mirror the training new and prospective employees go through, Vrieze also tailored the program to the student’s interests and learning capabilities.
For the first of the students’ two hours at the store, they learn how to interact with customers and practice their interview skills. Then they move onto different sections of the store.
Katrina Leuthold, a junior, wanted to be a barista in the store’s Starbucks, so Vrieze worked with the manager to allow her to make drinks for a day. Beau Sobotka, a senior, wanted to collect the carts from outside, and Sebastian Nelson, a junior, enjoyed working in the bakery and kitchen.
“If you could see their faces and see how excited they are when they learn something new and feel the sense of belonging that they have, it’s beyond any explanation — it’s joy,” Vrieze said.
Tendall hopes program continues as part of her legacy
Though Tendall is retiring this year, she hopes the program continues on as a part of her legacy at the school. Vrieze said Hy-Vee is interested in incorporating the program on a “permanent and regular basis.”
“This was our trial run,” Vrieze said. “We hadn’t planned on doing this until Colleen reached out to us, but the way that everything worked — it was a dance, it was smooth as butter.”
The students graduated from the program on Friday, but may still have a future at the company. Vrieze said she and the store’s human resources manager will visit Van Meter High School on Tuesday and conduct formal job interviews with the students, two of whom have already submitted applications.
Kristi Leuthold’s daughter Katrina is one of the students interested in a paid position at the store. Leuthold said that, for her daughter, who has an intellectual disability, making a plan for after high school can look different than it does for other students.
The program’s partnership with Hy-Vee gave her daughter the opportunity to experience a workplace and help her realize she can do great things, Leuthold said.
“This program has allowed her to have job training and an opportunity to take responsibility,” she said. “It’s showing kids that they are capable and they can do great things.”