Yough Works gives special needs students in-school food service training
As teachers, staff from The Nutrition Group and family members gathered in the cafeteria of Yough Senior High School one recent morning, four special-needs students were surprised with a cake and certificates thanking them for their hard work in a new pilot program.
Alexander Tucker, siblings Adam Hinerman and Andrew Hinerman and Anthony Gillott are all participating in Yough Works, an in-school job shadowing program operated through a partnership with the school district and its food service provider, The Nutrition Group.
What began in October with one student grew to four, with the students watching and learning from Nutrition Group staff members.
A district aide supports the students as they learn workforce skills, including teamwork, professionalism, customer service, communication and clerical. They assist with stocking shelves and coolers, assemble lunch foods and fill containers, as well as help to keep preparation areas clean, school officials say.
“They develop some of the soft skills needed for employment — being on time, communication ability,” says Dawn Hildenbrand, Yough's director of special education.
They also receive positive reinforcement from the cafeteria staff, adds Michelle Marker, The Nutrition Group director of programs.
“Without the Nutrition staff workers, we would not be able to do a program like this,” Hildenbrand says.
“This is just about their learning and having fun,” Marker says.
The students' schedules are individualized.
“Some work three or four days a week, some work one or two days a week. Most of them will graduate with hopes of getting employment,” Hildenbrand says.
She anticipates the program will slowly grow. “We don't want to overwhelm the staff. Given the job tasks and the space of the cafeteria and kitchen, we can only have so many students,” she says.
High school principal Brian Sutherland is particularly happy with the support he's seen other students give those in the Yough Works program.
“The whole student body has embraced this,” he says.
Building skills and a workforce
“If you look at our industry, probably the biggest problem is finding employees. There is lots of turnover, lots of competition. ... We've got this group of individuals who make good employees,” says Nancy Kohl, president of the School Food Service Division for The Nutrition Group.
“So we have partnered with Yough School District to work with their students to put them in a job training program, so that when they graduate they are eligible to be employees with The Nutrition Group,” she says.
“It started about a year ago. The district and my regional manager (Andrew Bergman) worked together to lay the groundwork, set the parameters, get the kids into the cafeteria, teach them everything they need to know to be food service employees,” Kohl adds.
“And we are very hopeful at the end of this year when they graduate, several of them will become Nutrition Group employees,” she says.
“You always learn with pilot programs. We would like to open this up to other school districts,” Marker says.
Similar programs exist in other districts, including a snack bar operation in the Elizabeth Forward School District where life skills students serve food.
Yough Works is more involved, in that its goal is developing workforce skills and transitioning students to employment, potentially with The Nutrition Group, Marker says.
“We are willing to work with districts to customize (similar programs). It takes a partnership,” she says.
Tucker, 21, works with the staff in the cafeteria and independently on the lunch line as students go through with their trays.
“I serve the food. I fill the silverware, the straws, the napkins, put the food trays away. I stock,” he says.
His grandparents, Jack and Deborah Truswell of Yukon, have seen a difference since he began the job shadowing program.
“His confidence has gone up a lot. He'll set the table and put dishes away (at home). On weekends, he makes his own lunch and cleans up. He would like to get a job similar with what he does. He started a couple of days; now he works four days,” Deborah Truswell says.
“He serves, he helps me make sandwiches, he cleans up after serving. You help me wash dishes and wipe down the tables,” says Nutrition Group employee Malana Krasonic, smiling at Tucker.
“Anything that needs done, he's done,” she says.
Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @MaryPickels.