Through The Gateway Program at Liberty High School, Edwards, 21, with 32 other special education students, has been given a new freedom, one that allows him to learn how to live in the real world, on his own.
Bach, who manages the business, has found a valuable employee in Edwards. "He's been working for me for two years, and he's become quite a lifesaver," said Bach. "He's a very hard worker."
Edwards, who lives with his grandmother in Brentwood, loves his job and punches a timecard three days a week to prove it. "I like everything I do here. I bag ice, empty the trash, stock shelves, pricing and change the window fluid for the gas pumps."
Photos by Charleen Earley
Wes Edwards, below, of Brentwood also graduated from the Gateway Program.
Four additional 2007 graduates, Shannon Sprenkel, Michael Edwards, Rose Gonzalez and Nicoale Hughes, joined Edwards recently at Cap's restaurant. Their smiles beamed across the banquet room as they received their diplomas and photo plaque gifts amid the tears of teachers and supporters.
Gateway, which began two years ago, is a post-secondary vocational program designed to serve special education students ages 18 to 22, who reside in the Liberty Union High School District.
The goal is to help students become independent and full-functioning members of their community through job search skills, continuing academic skills, social and community participation, adult living skills, gainful employment and job shadowing.
Local businesses participating in the program include the Chamber of Commerce, Loma Vista Preschool, Cap's Oak Street Bar & Grill, Brentwood Elementary, Brentwood Press, Village Community Resource Center and My Turn Learning Center in Oakley, to name a few.
Sherry Hughes of Oakley enrolled her 22-year-old daughter Nicoale in the program. Nicoale has Down syndrome. "There's not a lot of programs out there, and my daughter should have things available to her," said Hughes.
Nicoale works at My Turn Learning Center with executive director Gloria Hartsough and director/teacher Kristina Fisher. "I help them with lunches, cleaning tables, wash the kids hands, and help them with sign language," said Nicoale.
Hartsough noticed a transformation in Nicoale. "When Nicoale first came to us, she was shy and held her head down a lot. Since she's been here, her confidence level went up. She'll tell people, 'Hi, I'm Nicoale!'" said Hartsough.
"She's a caring person. Nicoale looks different from other kids. It's so important that we respect other people," she added. "This program is a win-win for our community."
John Saylor, director of Special Education Programs, oversees all the programs in the district. He's been with the Liberty Union High School District for seven years. "We established our own program (Gateway) two years ago because we were looking at how to meet the needs of the students within our community and district," said Saylor.
"We help them with vocational preparation through partnerships with local businesses, such as Kmart and Home Goods," he added. "We develop a job that's appropriate for them, and make sure they'll be successful at that job."
Funded through the school district and donations from local businesses, Gateway is a program district Superintendent Dan Smith endorses. He attended the second annual graduation.
"This is the result of hard work from the parents, staff, young adults and community. It's a model program," said Smith. "It brings together those four elements and gives the students opportunities. It was a thrill just looking at their faces, excitement, camaraderie, and sense of accomplishment."