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St. Helens High's YTP program offers real-world work experience and job training for students with disabilities

SPOTLIGHT PHOTOS: NICOLE THILL - Heather Humbert, a 19-year-old YTP student, removes a tray of cookies from the oven. After the cookies cooled, Humbert and other students help scoop them off the cookie tray to put them in the coffee cart display case. In Building B at St. Helens High School, students learn how to be baristas, run a business, manage time sheets and treat customers with respect — all during a single elective class designed to teach real-world job training skills in a practical way.

For 20 years, the Oregon Youth Transition Program at the high school has equipped students who have disabilities with professional working experience in order to help them find employment after graduation.

The grant-funded program, which is operated by the Oregon Department of Education, The University of Oregon and Vocational Rehabilitation Services, gives students at St. Helens High the opportunity to operate a fully-stocked coffee stand five days a week during school hours.

Working in the coffee cart gives students hands-on experience with touchscreen technology, point of sale systems, counting change, customer service, professionalism, accountability and teamwork. JJ Neubaum, an 18-year YTP student, uses the hot water dispenser in the coffee maker to cook a bowl of soup. Earlier in the day, Neubaum whipped up several blenders of chocolate milk, a popular seller among students.These abilities then translate to marketable skills in the workforce, explained Laurie Brownlow, one of the transition specialist teachers at the high school.

“The ultimate goal is to get them jobs out in the community,” Brownlow said.

When the coffee cart is open, teachers and students can order everything from hot coffee to fruit smoothies. It’s not uncommon for the aroma of freshly baked cookies to waft through the air as coffee cart employees load frozen dough into a small toaster oven.

Inside the coffee cart’s kitchen, a vast collection of sweeteners and flavored syrups lines the shelves, though many never get used, Brownlow said, laughing. Students tend to favor blended chocolate milk and iced tea, she explained, while staff often opt for mochas and americanos.

Brownlow, a teacher of 23 years, has led the St. Helens program from its beginning, and has been integral to its development alongside teacher Tracy Humbird, who has been with the program for 18 years. Over the years, Brownlow said, the coffee cart has always thrived and the program has been granted full funding every year. Profits made at the coffee cart go right back into the program, she said.

Building a longlasting program

The program has evolved over the years, Brownlow said. One clear example is that students who need physical assistance while working can now participate, something that wasn’t possible when it first launched.

Brittney Brandt, an 18-year-old YTP student, rings up a customer. This is Brandt's first year in the program, but Laurie Brownlow, a teacher in the YTP program, said she is a fast learner and great leader.Oregon YTP has grown significantly from only seven schools in the early 1990s to 120 high school programs statewide. The network of resources offered through the program also offers support for students after high school for up to a year, according to the state YTP website.

St. Helens High is contracted to enroll 43 students at a time in YTP. The Vernonia and Rainier school districts also offer YTP, which are each contracted to enroll more than 20 students. Brownlow said teachers for the three groups often meet to discuss growth opportunities and how to develop more vocational partnerships for students.

Competing with the adult workforce can be a challenge for students after they graduate and are no longer involved in YTP, Brownlow said. Building partnerships and professional relationships with local businesses as students helps them make the move from working in a high school setting to a professional setting easier, she explained.

Over the years, the program has formed partnerships with local companies like Avamere Assisted Living Facility, Sunshine Pizza, St. Helens Baptist Church, Burgerville and others, and Brownlow said she is constantly trying to establish new connections.

Cosette Nysetvold, the head chef at Avamere, has worked with a handful of students from the program over the six years she’s been in the kitchen. Students who volunteer at the assisted living center often work in the dining department. Working with students makes it easier for other staff members to do their jobs, she said, while the students also learn job skills.

“It gives them responsibility and helps them out, and gives them confidence and self gratification,” Nysetvold said.

Aimee McCarthy, a 23-year-old YTP student, delivers coffee to the school's head secretary Michelle Hasse. McCarthy like to make deliveries and said she enjoys seeing her regular customers when she takes their orders. This year, Heather Humbert, a 19-year-old is volunteering at Avamere. She helps bus tables and assists residents during meals. Humbert said she enjoys interacting with the residents, often complimenting their outfits or striking up conversations about how their days are going.

Positive influence for everyone

The goal of the program is to teach job skills, but students who work in the coffee cart often call it their favorite class of the day.

Other students, such as senior Kenyon Moreno, who volunteer to assist the YTP students have also been positively influenced.

On a Friday morning in May, Moreno casually strolled through the halls with Justin Walh, a 16-year-old YTP student, from one classroom to the next. With a binder full of order slips and a classroom list, Walh took coffee orders from a group of teachers while Moreno waited in the hallway for him. Together, they went back to coffee cart, waited for other students to fulfill the coffee orders, and then delivered the goods to the classrooms.

Moreno has worked with students in the program for four years. After graduation, he said he wants to pursue a career as a special education tutor.

“It makes me happy to see that the kids are happy,” Moreno said.

Back in the kitchen, it’s a tight squeeze with six students and two teachers swiftly grabbing ingredients from the fridge and mixing them into a variety of drink concoctions. The students move like a well-oiled machine. Each student has a job to do and knows exactly where needed supplies are located. When a customer approaches the counter, someone quickly swoops in to take the order and calculate the total purchase cost.

In her more than two decades at the school, Brownlow has seen the program change in a variety of ways, but nothing has been as rewarding as seeing how students thrive after high school. Standing in the corner of the coffee cart kitchen, Brownlow recalled the story of a graduate who started his own plumbing business in Portland. She smiled and transitioned into the story of another student who invited Brownlow to her wedding a few years ago.

“It’s been great. The kids are amazing,” she said, smiling as she watched the students work. “We’ve had some amazing kids come through.”