From left: Brother Griffin and Noah Alderman, Hamneet Dhanoa and David Doerksen are all about to graduate with jobs to go to, thanks to help from a special ed employment program at their Cloverdale high school. (Photo: Amy Reid)

Special ed work experience program ‘life changing’ for Surrey students

Lord Tweedsmuir program helping kids with disabilities develop skills, find work

Four Grade 12 students sit in a portable outside Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary on a sunny Thursday afternoon.

They are discussing grad plans for the weekend.

One of the boys explains he and his father will foot the bill for the group’s limo for the night.

“You all get free admission,” remarks Griffin Alderman with a smile.

He then explains he can afford to do so because he works.

What’s not obvious or visible is that these students have disabilities. And the reason they all have jobs as they depart high school is because of the “BASES” program.

BASES stands for Building Academic, Social and Employment Skills. As the name suggests, BASES students focus on the developing not just academic skills, but also social and employment skills.

Griffin works at Southridge Building Supplies. His brother Noah works at Thrifty Foods. Classmate David Doerksen has been hired at Emterra, and Hamneet Dhanoa works at Chuck E. Cheese.

All 19 of Surrey’s secondary schools offer students with special needs access to work experience, through the BASES program and other opportunities that may be arranged by each school’s career education department.

Career facilitator Sheryl Murrell runs the special needs work experience program at Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary.

“A job is the most important thing kids can have with developmental disabilities,” she says. “It’s so much more than just a job.

“It really helps them and they develop skills,” Murrell adds. “Kids who have struggles in school are told they’re not good enough. But they get to work and they say, ‘Hey, I can do this.’”

And when that light bulb goes off, it’s “life changing” for them.

“A lot of times school is their whole life. Their social life, their everything. Employment is the single indication for these kids to success,” Murrell says. “With employment comes money and through money comes freedom to be able to do things, to buy things, to become independent. It also offers social opportunities to be out and around people.”

While the program is incredibly important for these students, finding employers to come on board hasn’t proven easy, she added.

“When I’d say special ed, I’d get a lot more ‘No’ than ‘Yes,’” says Murrell. “I get a lot of rejection.”

Last November, she was beginning to worry because of the lack of placements. “I took it upon myself to say, ‘My job is to get these kids employment when they graduate.’ That’s where it started taking off.”

She credits an uptick in work experience placements – and employment – to a partnership with WorkBC.

“I found two local ladies who case manage kids with disabilities,” says Murrell. “Since we started the collaboration, my kids have been getting more jobs like there’s no tomorrow.”

WorkBC, she explains, offers a subsidy for employers who hire people with disabilities and is also helping with training.

This year, Murrell has 31 students she does work experience with: Seventeen are BASES students and the remaining 14 are deemed “at-risk,” so they either have a learning disability or social struggles. She estimates more than half of them have jobs, and the rest she’ll be hooking up with WorkBC.

It’s a win-win when these kids find employment, says Murrell.

“They give back to the system this way. Otherwise they would’ve just been on disability.”

The key to success, for both student and employer, is matching the child with the right job. It’s not always easy.

That’s why she does assessments, such as jobs around the school, paper routes, car detailing and more, to see what each child is capable of.

“I have some kids who memorize which houses we deliver papers to, then there are some who deliver to every house every single time. Some kids pick up paper and all the flyers fall out, some can pick up 10 at a time. So doing these school jobs help me understand what the kids can do.”

While the early days were hard, she says a few local employers have been amazing from the get go. Michaud’s Salon and Spa “did it before anyone else did it,” says Murrell. No Frills and Dollarama have also been great supporters, she adds.

As for those who’ve said no, she has this to say: “You’re missing out on the most reliable employees you’ll ever get.”

Employers can email murrell_s@surreyschools.ca.

Grade 11 student Jakob Spencer has found success in the work experience program this year.

Spencer, who has autism, says he was “a little rough around the edges” in his younger years. “Whenever I’d get angry I’d hit teachers, throw chairs and scream my head off. It wasn’t exactly a picnic for me.”

Jakob initially struggled in the work experience program. He didn’t like working at first. “But eventually I learned to live with the work I need to do,” he says, “and I have become quite the little helper.”

He completed a work experience stint at the Surrey Food Bank in the fall, and in January began at No Frills in Cloverdale.

“Usually I just restock chips, sodas and snacks. All that stuff,” he says. “I go there every Tuesday. It’s fun, there’s a lot of friendly people.”

After graduation, Jakob plans to work.

“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have a future,” he remarks. “I plan on being an inventor, like an engineer. Inventing machines to help people. I have a very special talent of building props from movies, TV shows and video games.”

Murrell says stories like Jakob’s are the ones that keep her going.

“They come into our program the idea of working and getting a job is kind of like, ‘What? I’m a kid.’ They don’t want to do it. However, as they get to around Grade 11 they really start to grow up and become proud of the work they do. They start thinking, maybe I will get a job when I graduate, maybe making money won’t be such a bad thing. Jakob’s sort of going through that right now. He’s really growing up.”

She had similar things to say about her Grade 12 students this year, who she has worked with since they were in Grade 8.

“My whole thing was what’s going to happen to them when they graduate. I thought it wasn’t going to be college or university, necessarily, but everyone should work,” says Murrell.

The kids were resistant and sometimes, so were their parents.

“But over the years, I’m proud of how you’ve grown up,” she says to the group. “You’re responsible and hardworking. And I think all the skills we’ve taught you have paid off.

“They’re all super hard workers,” adds Murrell. “Super employable and very responsible.”

amy.reid@surreynowleader.com