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Center teaches life skills, reaches out to others in need

District center runs Closet to Closet, which teaches sales skills and helps needy students
by: John Klicker, Centennial Transition Center student Kevin Klinger, 21, gets help from Melissa Cooley, 20, as she practices her sales skills at the Closet to Closet shop in the newly remodeled Centennial Transition Center on Tuesday, April 15, during the center’s open house. Closet to Closet, not open to the public, is for needy students inside the Centennial District who get vouchers to use at the store for clothing and other items they may need. Klinger works as a groundskeeper for the center and Melissa Cooley works at an internship with Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts store in Gresham.

The smell of freshly baked pizza fills the air, along with lively conversation at the Centennial Transition Center on 182nd Avenue, which is administered by the Centennial School District.

The center held an open house Tuesday, April 15, with staff members and students showing off its new kitchen as well as its newly opened donated clothing shop, Closet to Closet. The closet serves a dual purpose - students at the center will learn job skills by helping volunteers from the Centennial Education Foundation run the appointment-only store, which will provide clothing to district students in need.

Kevin Klinger, 21, shows his visitors around the center, which enrolls 18 students, ages 18-21, who have special needs and who are learning life and job skills. A student at the center, Klinger is also the building's groundskeeper.

'The outside is my domain,' he says with a smile.

Most of the students at the center have graduated from Centennial High School with alternative diplomas, according to Kriss Rita, transition coordinator. Alternative diplomas generally are awarded to students who complete a modified curriculum designed for their specific learning needs.

The center is designed to help students with disabilities prepare for the work world and live independently, she says.

'Everyone wants purpose,' Rita says. 'We try to help them to discover how to give back. We set goals together with them and their families.'

Klinger shows off the main classroom, which contains computers and a small library. At one computer, Doug Jones, 20, is researching the life and times of Gary Coleman, child star of 'Diff'rent Strokes.'

'He was cool,' Jones says. 'Gary Coleman is tight.'

On a more serious note, Jones says he is enrolled at the center to learn job skills, including how to fill out job applications.

Meanwhile, Neesha Strickland, 21, is passing out informational sheets about Closet to Closet. She notes that she works as an educational assistant at Centennial High School, helping with such tasks as the completion of students' grade sheets and in the lunchroom as well. She says she wants to learn more about budgeting and housecleaning through the center.

Across the room from Strickland stands Jody Bringhurst, president of the Centennial Education Foundation, which helped establish Closet to Closet. She says that the Centennial district is home to a large number of students from low-income families and that there is a great need for donated clothing.

She adds that Closet to Closet has received tremendous support from community businesses and is designed to make those in need of clothing feel comfortable.

'We try to make it cheery and make it a place where people want to come.'

Changing lives

The Centennial Transition Center, 2010 S.E. 182nd Ave., provides three programs:

• Compass works with employers and other organizations to provide a variety of services, including job training for students; instruction in how to use public transportation and how to navigate the community; teaching in such skills as cooking, cleaning and time and money management.

• Youth Transition Program is a partnership between the East Portland Office of Vocational Rehabilitation Services and the Centennial School District. Students participate in unpaid internships, job shadows and informational interviews with employers. The students' ultimate goal is paid employment at minimum wage or above.

• Closet to Closet is managed and run by students at the center as well as volunteers from the Centennial Education Foundation. The closet provides up to eight items of free clothing twice a year to district students in need. Centennial schools' counselors give the students vouchers for the clothes.

The closet needs Russian- and Spanish-speaking volunteers, as well as donations of gently used and new clothing, particular for children ages 5-12. For more information, call Jody Bringhurst at 503-661-9675 or e-mail jody_bringhurst@centennial.

k12.or.us.