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By Nicki, Youth Programs Developer, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

COWEP student Chris Corsello, with teacher, David Kern, and student Kyle Joseph.

CoWEP student Chris Corsello, with teacher, David Kern, and student Kyle Joseph.

Job training for special needs youth has been expanding at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden through our Youth Vocational Program. The Vocational Program offers work experiences for special needs middle school and high school students who have vocational goals. Most of the young people participating in the Vocational Program are enrolled in a job training program within their school, or they have specific vocational goals written into their educational curriculum. One of  the Garden’s partnerships is with Deep Run High School’s Cooperative Work Experience Program, also known as CoWEP.  CoWEP  is funded by Henrico County Public Schools Department of Exceptional Education and we are happy to be a work site for this wonderful program that supports our community’s youth.

Kyle Joseph cleaning tables in the Garden Cafe.

Kyle Joseph cleaning tables in the Garden Cafe.

Deep Run’s CoWEP students have helped us expand of our Vocational Program from gardening-related programs into the field of food service. Participants go through the process of filling out a job application through the Garden’s in-house catering partner, Meriwether Godsey and work  in the Garden Café.  They also attend employee orientation, which includes a safety in the workplace training. After going through the employment process, the students began reporting for work each Tuesday morning. The group clocks in, washes their hands, reports to their supervisor, Michelle, and then begins their routine of tasks — work that is typical in a commercial kitchen or restaurant. At the end of the day, they clock out again.  After months of participating in the program, the students know the routine well.  The group runs like a well-oiled machine.

Nathan Chen

Nathan Chen refilling the sugars.

I decided to have a sit-down interview with the Vocational Program food service participants, so you  can learn more about the program.
First, I talked to Kyle.  After his routine of filling salt and pepper shakers and disinfecting tables, he took a break to talk to me.   “CoWEP  is all about jobs —  jobs that anyone can get.”   It’s a simple concept, but a complicated situation for persons with disabilities in the workforce.  CoWEP and other job training programs are constantly in need of work sites like this who can partner for teaching programs. Kyle is a great conversationalist and makes any topic colorful, even when talking about work tasks. Kyle confesses to me that food service is not his preferred career path — his passion is inventions. He has a refreshing interest in life and a drive that not everyone in the working world possesses.  He lets me know that he “would like to be the manager” one day. This sort of intrinsic desire to thrive in the work force is what the Vocational Program is all about.

Chris Corsello and forks.

Chris Corsello helping to wash the silverware in the Garden Cafe.

Another student, Nathan, just recently started in the program. He tells me about his other job sites through CoWEP and describes the different tasks he has done. Here in the Garden Café,  “I put the sugars in the right place.  I wipe down the tables.” Nathan’s teacher, David Kern, shares with me that one day when Nathan was wiping tables, he took the initiative to start wiping down the chairs as well, going above and beyond expectations. I was excited to hear about that.
My last interviewee, Chris, has a magnetic smile.   His grin gets bigger and bigger with each question I ask about volunteering at the Garden. The  question  that excites him the most is when I ask about his favorite activity in the Café — washing silverware. We discuss his years of volunteer service, which spans different jobs in a variety departments and I ask again if washing silverware is really his favorite activity; he affirms with a louder “Yes!” followed by an eruption of hand-clapping.  If only more people were as pleasant and enthusiastic as Chris was during our interview, what a world it would be.

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