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San Diego Program Delivers Life Skills To Young Adults With Special Needs

Devin Wells and his classmates fill Subway orders, June 27, 2018.

Photo by Megan Burks

Above: Devin Wells and his classmates fill Subway orders, June 27, 2018.

Just before the lunchtime rush, Shea Harbour rattled through his last five sandwich orders.

“Spinach, onions. Oil and vinegar. Salt and pepper,” he told the Subway employee.

“He’s good,” she said, nodding with approval.

Behind him, 11 sandwiches were already piled high on a table. Harbour, 18, and two of his colleagues would deliver them to hungry staff at the San Diego Center for Children, where they’re students.

The center offers health and educational services for youth with special needs. Harbour and his classmates, Demetrius Vitalich and Devin Wells, are in a program it launched last year to help people who have behavioral health challenges, learning differences or developmental disabilities, and are transitioning from school into the adult world. The weekly food delivery service is one way the program teaches life skills and independence.

“I think the best thing about the food delivery is that it encompasses so many things in one activity,” said Thomas Ohno-Machado, their teacher. “You get the social skills out of it. You get the language arts and reading because you can read off the forms. The students will help me write the script if we need one. It helps with math because now you’re handling change and we’re deciding how much we want to charge for different items.

“The biggest thing we’ve seen is students taking leadership of this whole program,” he said.

Wells, 17, came up with the name: Fast and Furious Food Delivery.

“It’s good food delivery and it comes fast to the staff,” he said, wearing a royal blue shirt with the service’s logo and his name.

Since September, Ohno-Machado and the students have taken the idea of weekly food deliveries and run with it. In addition to the shirts, they’ve developed a professional system. They print order forms for whichever restaurant they’ve chosen that week and present the options to staff or workers with outside organizations. On Tuesdays, they collect the orders, along with cash and credit cards. On Wednesdays, they pile into a van to pick up the food.

They charge a small service fee, which is used for other class outings that build life skills.

Harbour is the customer service whiz. Back at school with orders in hand, he politely entered classroom four.

“Nice to see you,” he told the teacher as he set the sandwiches in their designated spot.

Next door, after telling the teacher there she looked nice, he realized he had one sandwich too many. It was back to classroom four, where he calmly sorted it out.

“Hey, Shea, that was great to clarify, to make sure everyone got their order,” the teacher told him. He thanked her for the feedback.

Photo by Megan Burks

Demetrius Vitalich and Shea Harbour look at a sandwich order, June 27, 2018.

Vitalich, 18, is the businessman of the group.

“I was a little nervous (the first time), not knowing what people would think about the business if they weren’t really into it,” he said. “But I just took a deep breath and just did it, and they love it. Now I feel confident and I look forward to when this can become even more popular.”

During the Subway outing, he kept an eye on things to ensure they ran smoothly. Periodically, he would encourage Harbour and Wells to keep up the good work.

“Well, we got all the orders,” he later told teacher Ohno-Machado.

“How do you think it went today?” Ohno-Machado asked.

“It went really smooth,” Vitalich said. “I love Subway. When I come to Subway, they have a good attitude. They treat us very well here. Very patient.”

Photo by Megan Burks

Devin Wells orders a sandwich, June 27, 2018.

Wells is the one with a can-do attitude and good work ethic.

“I messed up on the first order and I said, ‘All right, I need a game plan,’” he said of their first delivery in September. “So I went back to class, read the script all over again until I got it. On the second day, I got my first order done correctly.”

Wells said his next challenge is to work up to completing the harder orders — the ones with credit cards.

All three of the students said the service is helping them improve in math, organization and social skills.

“The very first time we did this, it was kind of stressful because I didn’t know how to meet new people and take orders from the people,” Harbour said. “It feels a lot easier for me now.”

Ohno-Machado said he can see the change, too.

“Our students have come a long way. We had scripts to read off of and we used that for months. The students struggled even reading the scripts, making eye contact,” he said. “Now what you see is a lot of confidence in the students, a lot of personability with the staff they come into contact with here on campus, and also you see that personability when they go out into the community and go into the restaurants.”

Ohno-Machado said he hopes that translates into jobs outside of school for the students. His goal is to have all of his students employed by the end of summer.

Getting ready for the adult world can be difficult for any young person, especially for students with special needs. The San Diego Center for Children has found a unique way to ease that transition.

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