A black walkie-talkie tucked into his bluejeans, Jacob Jarosinski scanned the neat rows of plants and flowers at Marshall Grain Co.
During the nearly three-hour shift, Jarosinski, 18, greeted customers and helped carry out their purchases, swept the floors, watered flowers and unloaded a delivery truck.
“I love gardening,” he said. “I hope I can learn enough here to get a job working in a garden store.”
Jarosinski is a student in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district’s adult transition program, which aims to prepare students with intellectual disabilities and autism for life after school.
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To do so, the district last year launched what it calls MARC, or Moving Into Adult Roles and Communities. The program arms students with life skills such as cooking and washing laundry and gives them critical job experience by partnering with area businesses.
This year, 17 students are enrolled in MARC, and 40 more are now in high school and could join the program after graduation. Teachers and trained diagnosticians identify the students in elementary school or junior high, and Texas state law allows the district to serve them through age 22.
Robin Kuntz, a transition specialist who led the development of MARC, said the program has one overarching objective.
“Our goal is for every one of these students to lead a meaningful, purposeful life once they leave here,” said Kuntz, who is in her second year with the district. “Too often in special education, we spend thousands of hours educating students, who eventually leave and spend the rest of their days watching TV at home. That does not serve anyone.”
To avoid falling into that trap, Kuntz and teachers meet frequently with students and their parents, as well as other stakeholders, like siblings, grandparents, church youth leaders and therapists, to develop person-centered plans. Job coaches help identify the students’ interest and connect them to professionals in coordinating industries.
Students work three days a week at Tarrant County businesses, including Marshall Grain; Five Below, a teenage-oriented retail chain; Staples, the office supply store; and CiCi’s Pizza. They learn how to make eye contact with co-workers and customers, how to dress professionally, how to pace themselves and ask for more work, Kuntz said.
Marshall Grain owner Joyce Connelley said the program has served students but also the business.
“They are a delight. They’re hard workers. They brighten our day,” she said. “And in our busy seasons, it is beneficial to have extra hands around to water and take care of plants.”
Since their children joined the program, parents say they have noticed changes. Jacob Jarosinski’s mother, Kim Newrocki, said her son, who has autism, quickly matured when he began working.
“He is so proud of himself,” said Newrocki, who lives in Bedford. “He keeps his room a little cleaner. He helps out more around the house. He carries himself a little differently.”
At Five Below, 19-year-old Amy Custead, who has Down’s syndrome, folds T-shirts, sweeps floors and prices items. But the job has meant more than just those duties, said her mother, Jo Custead.
When Amy graduated from Euless’s Trinity High School last year, Custead wondered how she would navigate the transition from a structured day to adulthood. MARC has helped provide a bridge between the two, she said.
“She is so ready to go in the morning. She is halfway down the block before I have even closed the front door,” Jo Custead said. “She feels like she’s part of something here.”
Parents say MARC is placing their children on a path to success and eventual independent living.
“When the kids are young, you don’t think about the future. You’re just living day to day,” Newrocki said. “It hit us when our son turned 18. Who will take care of Jacob? We knew we needed to help him take care of himself.”