Sean Clay of Peabody is like a lot of 20-year-old guys.
He has a steady job and his own apartment, and in free moments, he likes to watch sports and anime, root for the Undertaker on World Wrestling Entertainment, and visit his grandparents, who raised him.
He’s outgoing and friendly, and has a friend online from North Carolina he coyly describes as “more than just that.”
But Sean is different from his peers, too. Learning is much harder for him. Planning is hard, too, without structured help. He needed assistance in school, even though he was mostly in regular classrooms. Going to college wasn’t an option.
Group homes and sheltered workshops are where many students with special needs like Sean’s end up. It’s a good alternative for many, but Sean wanted more.
He wanted to make his own choices and decisions, wanted to get a competitive job to support himself; what he wanted was, in a word, independence. And he knew if he was going to get there, he needed more help.
Interrelated teacher Steve Reiner at Peabody-Burns High School, who worked with Sean to develop his individualized education plan, was one of the first to step up, though he downplays his role.
“A lot of other people deserve a lot of credit,” Reiner said. “The students here, and the faculty, there were a lot of things done that helped prepare Sean.”
Reiner worked with a team of professionals to design the plan that would put Sean on track toward his goals.
Meanwhile, Sean made the most out of his high school experience.
“I was the main manager for football, volleyball, basketball, and track. I helped with the girls and guys,” Sean said.
As a senior, he won the school’s citizenship award, a repeat of an honor he also earned in eighth grade, and was chosen to be a homecoming candidate, Reiner said.
“He was loved here,” he said.
Sean’s plan had him commuting to Hillsboro for a year or so to participate in a living skills program, Practical Arts Evaluation System, taught by Norman Winter.
“Sean did a really super job here,” Winter said. “He probably was above average in the area of taking the initiative to do things. He knew he wanted a job because he wanted to make his own money. With the students I work with, that’s pretty rare.”
Routines for daily living are part of the PAES curriculum, as was constructing a small storage building, which was one of Sean’s favorite activities.
The project was one of Sean’s favorites.
“I built a tool shed; it was hard but it was really fun to do,” he said.
Winter said his goal is for students to establish connections that will help with their transitions from school to work.
“A lot of kids don’t have any idea what they’re going to be doing when they leave high school, aren’t used to planning that far ahead,” he said.
Knowing Sean’s skills and motivation, Winter introduced him to Project SEARCH, a partnership between Newton Medical Center and the Newton school district.
“We have different rotations of internships at the hospital, working alongside professionals in dietary, housekeeping, shipping and receiving, and secretarial jobs,” coordinator Jeremy Gooch said. “We try to back off as quickly as possible so they become more of a coworker.”
The transition was tough for Sean at first, but he worked through that to develop good relationships with Project SEARCH and hospital staff. With the help of a job coach, he completed three internships and couldn’t say which he liked best.
“It’s hard to say because I had fun in all of them,” he said. “The people I worked with were really nice.”
As he neared the end of the program, Prairie View employment training specialist Whitney Widener entered the picture.
“We find out from the job coaches there how they’ve done, what skills they’ve learned, and help them use that to find a real community job,” Widener said.
Since Sean lived in Peabody, job options were limited, Widener said, but Westview Manor had an open position in the kitchen.
“Sean ended up knowing someone at Westview, so that was really helpful in the process,” Widener said.
That person was dietary manager Melissa Leider, who had been Sean’s neighbor. While the personal connection made the process easier, like anyone else, Sean had to prove he was qualified for the position.
“We figured after we interviewed him and looked over his references and experiences that he would be a good asset to our facility,” Leider said.
Sean started working at the facility in April. Widener was there as a job coach to help him adjust to his new responsibilities, and also to support Westview staff.
“They would call and ask me if he was a struggle and offer help,” Westview director Cindy Edwards said. “I could call them at any time.”
While Widener helped to modify and structure routines to fit Sean’s strengths and learning style, she said Leider made the biggest difference.
“She wanted to support him in the job and gave him leeway to learn everything,” Widener said. “For my clients to be successful they need a really supportive workplace, and when they’re given the time they do a really good job.”
Leider said Sean washes dishes, prepares cold cereal and drinks, sweeps, mops, and delivers food trays to residents. While she’s pleased with his work, Leider was even more complimentary about his interactions with residents.
“He goes on lunch break and goes back to sit with the clients,” she said. “He always want to joke around and have a good time. They all enjoy talking with him; he brightens up their day.”
Sean is happy with how things have turned out to this point, but he hasn’t forgotten a long-term goal he would like to achieve.
“Probably try to be a baker,” he said. “I like goodies and stuff. Right now, I’m a dishwasher and just taking things slow until I reach that goal.”