Special-needs students learn life skills

Justin, 28, used to volunteer to stock shelves in a church food pantry with peanut butter, canned goods and bread. Now he is paid to do it. Justin is part of a program that helps students with special needs receive on-the-job training.

The community vocation program is a partnership between Lafollette High School and First United Methodist Church in Madison, Wis. For a decade, this outreach program has proven successful for students with special needs who want to learn skills that are useful in today's workforce.

Not only does Justin volunteer in the food pantry on Mondays, he also helps in the kitchen for special meals and is a mentor to high school students, said Joy Cobb, a First Church member who volunteers in the food pantry. "By the end of the school year, many of the students get positions working in restaurants and stocking shelves in stores," she says.

Ten years ago, Kathy Sandefur, longtime member of First Church, connected with Lafollette, and the partnership began with students helping in the food pantry. The training has blossomed into receiving large amounts of food to be packaged and stocked, serving meals for families in need during holidays, making large quantities of sandwiches for low-income individuals for the "Go Meal Program" and washing dishes in the church's commercial kitchen.

"The most rewarding part of my job is working with teens and volunteers," says Karen Andro, director of outreach ministry at the church. Teacher Anita Sattel is the special education assistant who works in the community and at the church as a job coach. Sattel, certified in food safety, teaches about food safety, cleaning and sanitizing a commercial kitchen.

"I am so grateful for Anita who leads, is supportive and nurturing to the students," says Andro. "And it's so rewarding to see some of the students moving forward and now working.

"Students also help each other, and it's such a powerful program."

The students take a bus from the school to the church and work four days a week.

AT A GLANCE First United Methodist Church of Madison | 203 Wisconsin Ave, Madison, WI 53703 | 608-256-9061 | [email protected] | www.firstunitedmethodistmadison.org | Pastor: Rev. Carly Kuntz | Average attendance: 334 | Wisconsin Conference