August Adkins and Jonathan Cunningham showed up for their shift at Yelm Community Services thrift store a little after 9 a.m.

But don’t worry. They weren’t late. You see, they can’t drive. Instead, their paraeducator Cindy Gillespie gave them a ride to work, where she stayed and helped them carry out the duties of the job.

This scene happens everyday, possibly with other students, because it is one of the core job sites that students from the SITE House get to explore. SITE stands for Supporting Independence Through Employment. 

And that’s exactly what the SITE House does for people with special needs, 18-21.

“There’s a lot of agencies out there that can help the students, but they don’t kick in until they are age 21,” said Nora Sutherland, teacher of the SITE HOUSE. “So the SITE was created for that stopgap between the ages of 18 and 21.” 

Sutherland said that students like Adkins and Cunningham, both 19, start to show signs of maturity when working at the thrift store.

“You take them in there and the staff price everything and put them in huge shopping carts,” Sutherland said, adding that the students then sort through all the merchandise and put it all in its place throughout the store.

“At first it’s, ‘what’s this?’ With every item they are pulling out of the cart, you are telling them what it is,” Sutherland said. “But after a while it’s, ‘I know what this is. This goes in the small appliances or this is an infant thing, which goes in the infant room.’

“You just start to see them create this flow that happens,” Sutherland said. “When the carts are empty, and the clothing rack is empty, they go, ‘I’ve straightened shoes before. I’ve straightened up the books,’ and they just start to flow. They’re not standing around wondering what to do. They know what to do.”

Cunningham said that the SITE House “helps me get a job, and it helps me live on my own (in the future).” Of the thrift store, he said that “we help put away things and straighten things.”

Jonathan said the SITE House was “amazing” and that he likes to work at the thrift store because he likes “to check out all the new merchandise.” 

Working out at jobs is only one third of the program. The other two consist of life skills and academics.

“Mainly its that independence, and supporting independence through employment, but it’s not just employment — it’s everything,” Sutherland said. “The kids are either doing academics, cleaning the house or are off on the job.”

Sutherland said that the core job sites that a student can do right off the bat are Wilcox, the district’s mail room, the District Office/Yelm Extension School recycling, Southworth Cafe, Yelm Community Services Thrift Store, and shopping for the SITE House.

“Right now, we shop for ourselves,” Sutherland said. “We have a budget. So Monday through Thursday, the students take turns cooking for each other. And they are the cook for the entire quarter, and that’s part of our independent living skills.”

The program requires gained maturity and skill, but when the students reach those levels, they are free to go to other places of employment.

“The students start out with me and my staff and we start to train them,” Sutherland said. “They all learn at different rates, so once they become independent of myself and my staff, then we start them at Southworth, and from there we can do Goodwill, McDonald’s, Walt’s, Easthaven Villa, Head Start, Yelm Farm and Pet, Yelm Vet and Carrie’s Critters.”

Most students are in the program for three years and in their final year, which is decided based on independence, they will get to work with an employment agency called Morningside, which finds them internships or jobs based on the skills they have mastered.

A student may not be able to find quality jobs in a competitive market because they might only be able to do 10 of the 15 requirements for, say, a job at McDonalds. That’s where Morningside comes in. It can work with the employers and carve out a job for each individual student, Sutherland said.

“Maybe they are only working a couple hours a day, three or four days a week, but they are employed,” she said. “It gives them something else to do besides sit at home after they graduate.”

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