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Work education program for special needs students serving up coffee and smiles in Leechburg

| Saturday, May 6, 2017, 12:01 a.m.
Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
Nikki Saxion, owner of CoCo Coffehouse in Leechburg, shares a moment with Jasmine McCracken, a Leechburg Area High School junior who is working at the coffee shop through the JOBS training program offered at the high school.

A Leechburg business is serving up more than coffee these days.

Jasmine McCracken, a junior at Leechburg Area High School, dreams of operating a coffee shop one day, and landing her first job at CoCo Coffeehouse is a step toward her dream.

The fact that Jasmine has Down's Syndrome isn't standing in the way of her goal. She already has the perfect name for her future coffee shop: "Jazzy's Java."

Jasmine, 17, garnered a love of coffee through routine visits to Starbucks during her earlier cheerleading days at Leechburg.

Jasmine walks a few blocks from school to CoCo Coffeehouse on Market Street on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, clocking in for her shift as a barista.

Jasmine's devoted paraprofessional aide of 11 years, Angela Vigna, accompanies her weekly and stays discreetly out of the way while Jasmine works her set hours: 8:30 a.m.- 10:30 a.m.

"She watches the clock," Vigna said. "She can't wait to come to CoCo's."

Here, Jasmine develops her food and beverage skills under the watchful guidance of CoCo owner Nikki Saxion — waiting on customers, preparing foods, cleaning, operating the cash register and honing her social skills with the public.

Jasmine is enrolled in JOBS (Job Opportunities to Benefit Students), a work-based learning experience program funded by a Pennsylvania state grant through the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.

OVR provides vocational rehabilitation services to help persons with disabilities prepare for, obtain or maintain employment.

The goal of this program is to provide 200 high school students in Armstrong, Beaver, Butler and Lawrence counties with jobs, said Christopher Davies, OVR Transition Specialist with Lawrence County Community Action Partnership.

"All of the students who I have found work place opportunities so far are enjoying their experiences," Davies said. "This program is serving as another resource Leechburg High School can use to give their students an educational experience in the work force."

Learning support teacher Michelle Ferretti embraced this program when OVR approached the district.

"The Jobs for All program and a Work Based Learning Experience are exciting opportunities for students to gain employment skills and begin the transition to post high school," Ferretti said.

Jasmine is one of three Leechburg high school students enrolled at no cost to the district or local participating businesses, said Ferretti. The grant from OVR pays each student's wages.

Two other Leechburg students are enrolled in JOBS: junior Alyssa Shinko is employed at State Farm insurance in Leechburg and senior Christian Adams works at Hillcrest Country Club in Lower Burrell. Future plans include employing additional learning support students through OVR this summer at the Leechburg Pool in Gilpin Township, said Ferretti.

"We wanted this program," Ferretti said. "We want to have more kids actively working this year. The paperwork process has taken a while."

Key requirements for students participating include: being a high school junior or senior, having a desire to work, maintaining a certain level of maturity, representing Leechburg Area School District in a positive manner and being academically sound, Ferretti said.

When approached by OVR this spring about sponsoring a student, Saxion said her decision was an easy one.

"It (the program) seemed like it would be something nice to do," Saxion said. "I said yes before meeting Jasmine and it seemed like a positive thing."

The program offers a minimum of 90 hours of job shadowing for each participant.

Jasmine earns $9 an hour, plus occasional tips. Her wages are automatically deposited into a recently opened bank account, a program requirement that promotes real world life skills.

"I even have a debit card," Jasmine boasted.

And her take on the new job?

"It's really fun," Jasmine said.

Gaining invaluable real world job training under the watchful eye of Saxion already has been reflected in Jasmine's demeanor, said Saxion.

"She was shy the first shift, but now is actively engaging with customers and chatting with them," Saxion said.

Saxion said the job is a perfect fit for Jasmine.

"When Jasmine was in first grade, she was told she may not ever be able to read. But she has excelled, exceeding expectations and is taking mainstream classes and adapted math and gym classes." Jasmine and Nikki have bonded since Jasmine began working on April 19.

The two joke, laugh and work together like old friends.

"I'm impressed with Jasmine's enthusiasm and willingness to do all of the tasks given," Saxion said. "The customers enjoy her being here as much as I do."

Joyce Hanz is a freelance writer.

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