One step at a time

Transition program helps kids with disabilities adjust to life after school

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On a table there are two pieces of bread, a knife and two jars -- one full of peanut butter and the other with jelly. To most, it's the obvious makings for a sandwich, but for others, it can be an unsolvable puzzle.

That's why a group of six recent graduates from Steamboat Springs High School who aren't quite ready for life on their own will meet every morning at 8 a.m. for a day of life skills training in a four-room mock apartment.

Monday will mark the first day of Stepping Stones, a program designed to help the developmentally disabled make a smooth transition from high school to independent living.

The group meets for breakfast at 8 a.m. After eating, they practice reading with the daily newspaper. The rest of the day unfolds with chores and Life Centered Career Education, where they learn everything from money management to how to do laundry.

The room is set up with all the furniture of a real apartment. Students practice changing the sheets and preparing meals. They learn to ride the city bus for field trips and learn how to interview for jobs.

Every Wednesday, the group goes out for a social activity -- dinner and a movie, bowling or date night.

"Whatever typical teenagers do," said Paula Lotz, severe needs teacher. "We want them to have a social life along with everything else. These are the things we take for granted."

Jon Allee is 21 years old. He was born with cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects his muscle control; he uses a wheelchair.

Beyond the physical diability, however, Allee's eyes snap with light from a sharp mind. He is good with computers and during the past year, the shy teen who kept his head down and barely spoke at all has started to open up, paraprofessional Dana Perry said, and everyone discovered Allee has a great sense of humor.

Allee is just starting to take the first steps toward an independent life. Though he graduated from Steamboat Springs High School more than three years ago, Allee is still on the waiting list for a room in a Horizons group home.

Because of the wait between Horizons and high school, Allee is part of a disabled population that is in danger of falling through the cracks.

To keep that from happening, Allee has stayed in high school. The Stepping Stones program is the first time in Steamboat Springs that someone such as Allee can leave high school after graduation while he waits for his place in the Horizons program.

"Our goal is to help these students achieve semi-independent living where they can have homes and jobs," Lotz said. "We want to help them achieve whatever their dream is."

For Allee, he discovered that he is really good with computers.

Allee has a job at Johnny B. Good's Diner, where he makes fliers on the computer, takes mail to the post office and does other odd jobs.

"He really is a computer whiz," said Mike Diemer, Johnny B.'s owner. "He's an awesome kid. Unfortunately, his brain far outworks his body."

Allee works at the diner one day a week and always gets a milkshake with his paycheck.

"I love vanilla," Allee said.

"Actually, I think I could pay him in vanilla milkshakes and he would be happy," Diemer said.

This will be Allee's only year in Stepping Stones. He is scheduled to move to a Horizons group home as soon as a wheelchair accessible spot is available, but for 18-year-old Jamie Kaminski, she may be in the program for several years.

Kaminski already holds down two jobs. She sweeps and cleans at the Comb Goddess and waters plants at Windemere Landscape and Garden Center.

"I've met a lot of people at my job," Kaminski said.

"We want these students integrated into the community after high school," Lotz said. "We want people to see them at their jobs and see them on the bus and know that they are a vital part of Steamboat Springs."

When the students and teachers for the Stepping Stones program walked into their new classroom early this summer, it wasn't the colorful mock apartment it is today. The floor was warped. There was water damage in the ceiling and a lot of cleaning to be done.

Teachers and students alike spent the summer painting and cleaning, and Jon Allee's father laid new carpet.

"I've learned a lot from these students," Perry said. "They have a really great life. They have a sense of what it is to be a great person because they face such adversity.

"I've learned about self-determination and patience."

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