WAPAKONETA — A local partnership between an educational center and a Wapakoneta business has lead to the ultimate accomplishment for a program designed for children with autism.
The Auglaize County Educational Service Center (ESC) provides a program, Project Independence, which is a transitional program designed for children with autism to give them the skills they need to live on their own after high school.
Project Independence student Clay Nelson, 18, of St. Marys, attended this program, which was held in Wapakoneta, and he recently graduated and was hired to work full-time at Wapakoneta business JMC Mechanical, a partner of Project Independence.
“This is a big success for us,” ESC Autism Coordinator Kelly Schattschneider said. “We feel good for putting together a program that really works.”
The goal of Project Independence is to teach students with autism, who are at a high school-age level, the knowledge and vocational skills they need to live on their own and to learn the skills necessary to help them attain a job and work on their own after the completion of the program.
Nelson has Asperger’s syndrome, which is a high functioning form of autism. It is a developmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others.
Nelson’s teachers and family say they are proud of him for completing Project Independence and getting hired after graduation.
Schattschneider said the program that she helped develop for children with autism in the county is going into it’s fifth year, and Nelson is the first student who has graduated from the program and found full-time employment.
“There is an 80 percent unemployment rate for kids with autism,” Schattschneider said. “Clay is the first person to leave the program and go into full time employment.”
Project Independence finds local companies that are willing to work with the students in the program, beginning with letting the student work for them for a few hours a week with a job coach. In Nelson’s case, he completed the program and is now working full-time at JMC Mechanical, a business who opened their doors to the program and students.
While Nelson attended his daily classes, he also started working at the company a couple hours a week with a job coach, who served as a liaison between the program and JMC. At the end of February, Nelson became a part-time employee and as of June 7 became a full-time employee. His promotion came one day after he received his diploma.
“We’re really grateful to JMC because they said ‘sure, bring him over,’” Schattschneider said. “It’s hard to find a business that will accept this population.”
Schattschneider said that Nelson is a real hands-on, mechanically minded person, and working for JMC Mechanical is a good fit for him.
Nelson achieved the ultimate goal for the Project Independence program, which was to leave the program with employment after graduation.
“JMC has accepted him and other students there,” Schattschneider said. “They embraced the kids. It’s hard to find employers that do that.”
Nelson’s mother, Diana Nelson, said that this job is ideal for her son because he is very mechanical.
She said that Project Independence has been a lifesaver for the family, because he attempted junior high and high school, but ended up being home-schooled during his seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade years. He would practice math, reading and language in the morning with his mother, and then in the afternoon, he would help his father, who owns Tom’s Towing and Repair, where he learned vocational skills.
“His whole education has been a struggle,” Diana Nelson said.
It had been a struggle up until he joined the Project Independence program to finish out his high school education. St. Marys City Schools Special Education Director Doretta Nale suggested this program for Clay.
“Doretta did everything she could come up with,” Diana Nelson said. “This program was a perfect fit for him and his education.”
Diana Nelson said her son’s academics were never a question, because he is very smart, but the school setting was a struggle. He had passed his Ohio Graduation Tests on his first attempt, and he was advanced proficient in math and science.
This program helped him get into a regular school setting, and complete his high school, while learning vocational skills he is taking with him into the workforce.
Nelson is a 2011 graduate of Memorial High School, and he chose not to walk, but he had a special ceremony with his teacher, intervention specialist of Project Independence Cari Fisher, faculty members from St. Marys City Schools, and Project Independence coordinators and family on June 6, where he was presented his diploma.
JMC Mechanical Shop Supervisor Kevin Ott said Nelson is doing well and it has been a positive experience for the company.
“He likes the work, and I’m glad we are able to do this,” Ott said. “Clay is an asset to the company.”
JMC Mechanical President John McCormick said he recently became aware of Project Independence and was eager to help.
“Jim Walls spoke with Kelly (Schattschneider) and it just seemed like a neat thing,” McCormick said.
As soon as McCormick heard the idea from Walls, who is a project supervisor at JMC Mechanical, he knew he would be interested in it.
“It’s a great program,” McCormick said. “It’s a win-win all the way around. Kids benefit from it and so does the company.”
McCormick said this has been an eye opening experience, and the partnership with the county ESC is working out great.
“Clay is doing great, he’s really taken to it,” McCormick said. “There’s a lot of things kids can do, they just need a chance.”
When JMC Mechanical partnered with Project Independence, it gave the students with autism who were interested in this type of field a chance to work in this career.
“He’s an example of what the program can do,” McCormick said.
McCormick noted that this program helped build a bridge through educational and life-skill training, and he applauds the ESC for that.
“I’m proud to be apart of it,” McCormick said, “and we will continue to work with the program.”
Nelson’s mother said his father and she are relieved and happy.
“We are so glad that JMC offered this opportunity to him, and it’s working out well,” Diana Nelson said. “We’re just really thrilled for Clay. It’s exciting. His whole family is proud.
“John (McCormick) cared enough to make it work, and it’s wonderful,” she said, “and he likes getting a pay check.”