By Mike LaBella
---- — A typical school day for Johnny Caba includes perusing local supermarket ads for sale items that can be incorporated into meals he helps cook and sell at the City Hall Cafe.
He draws up a list of items to buy and, on Mondays, goes shopping with his teacher.
Then its back to City Hall where he and other special needs students in Haverhill High School’s Learning for Life program begin a week of cooking and serving customers ranging from members of the public to hungry city employees.
The lunch menu one week this month featured egg salad wraps, tacos, French onion soup, chicken salad wraps and tomato Florentine soup — depending on the day of the week. The breakfast menu usually features items such as toast and bagels, hot breakfast sandwiches, freshly brewed coffee, homemade muffins and breads, juices and snacks.
“I like to cook and have always wanted to be a chef,” said Caba, who is in his second year with this school-to-career transition program.
The cafe is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. during the school year and for several weeks in the summer. Students, who are supervised by site manager Theresa Diffin, prepare and serve breakfast and lunch and make sure they take good care of their customers.
“We deliver to offices in the building and we’ll even cater meetings,” Caba said. “It’s a lot of fun and I’m learning a lot about the food industry.”
Through the Learning for Life program, students like Caba, 19, are gaining real life work skills intended to help them find meaningful employment once they reach age 22 and must leave the program.
Whether they’re surrounded by books they are looking to sell in their little store in the basement of City Hall, tending to a hot pot of soup on a stove in the City Hall Cafe or stocking Hillie shirts and jerseys in the high school store, they’ve all found a little piece of work heaven.
The program is for students with special needs who can benefit from further opportunities and experiences in their transition from high school life to employment and adult life. Once their life skills and vocational skills have been assessed, they are eligible for placement in a community workplace, or they can work at any of the program’s three structured work sites: City Hall Cafe, The Book Cella store in the basement of City Hall and the Haverhill High School student store.
Half their school day is spent in a classroom with teacher Danielle Vellante, and the other half is spent at a job site. There are about 25 students in the program, with half of them in class in the morning and the other half at job sites.
Angel Saenz, 20, already has a blossoming resume of work experiences. He’s worked at the high school store under the guidance of site supervisor Jennifer Denoncourt and said he really liked the job because he got to sell clothing items and other goods to students.
“I was a cashier and I also stocked shelves,” Saenz said. “I never worked at the City Hall Cafe, but I can say the food is good. They let me sample it.”
He’s also worked as a maintenance helper at the Haverhill YMCA, at Laundry Day across from City Hall and is currently working a paid job at Burger King on Plaistow Road. It’s a job he landed on his own.
“My father is helping me save my money for the future,” Saenz said.
In a cozy room in the basement of City Hall, student Torquil Lane is surrounded by books. Lane, 19, loves sorting, stocking and selling them to customers at bargain prices. The Book Cellar has something for readers of all ages.
Gretchen Handerson is the site supervisor and keeps a watchful eye on students such as Lane.
“I like greeting customers and showing them around,” Lane said. “This is good practice for working at a library, which is a job I hope to get someday.”
Lane isn’t shy about promoting this hidden-away gem of a little business.
“Right now we’re offering two hardcover books for a dollar,” he said. “And you can get five paperback books for just a dollar.”
Jonathan Tamburino, 20, has worked at most of the program’s sites and also in the kitchen at Lakeview House, a nursing home across from Northern Essex Community College.
“I like to cook, but on Fridays I work at the MSPCA in Methuen,” Tamburino said. “I really like working with animals and hope to get a job in that field.”
Stephanie Curtin, vocational skills coordinator, said the goal is to improve each student’s communication, as well as social skills such as how to answer the phone and make proper eye contact.
“If they have any difficulty in these areas, we’ll help them with it,” she said.
At the City Hall Cafe and at The Book Cellar, students also acquire skills in marketing by creating promotional pamphlets they post in various areas of the building in hopes of generating business. They create each week’s cafe menu as well.
“These kids want to be here and they want to make you happy and produce good quality work,” Curtin said.
Students also work at job sites, including at Smolak Farms in North Andover and at Canobie Lake Park’s haunted Halloween event in Salem, N.H.
They work with the Haverhill YMCA’s building maintenance crew, at the MSPCA caring for and feeding animals, and at the Hannah Duston Healthcare Center’s laundry and kitchen.
“We’re currently branching out with more job development and we’re creating a binder of all entry level positions for students to be hired by local employers,” Curtin said. “We don’t have any students at CVS at this time, but they are one of our biggest supporters. We’ve placed students there in the past, working on inventory, stocking shelves and even working the register. They said they’d be willing to take our students at any CVS in the city.”
Students typically work outside jobs as volunteers — gaining knowledge and experience in return — although they do receive a small stipend when working at the program’s sites, such as the cafe in City Hall.
“We also help them create resumes, teach them how to fill out an application, and help them practice their interview skills and how to present themselves at a community placement,” Curtin said.
Students who leave the program and enter the workplace often have opportunities waiting for them, including at places such as Penacook Place Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, and at Hannah Duston.
“Many of our former students are working at these places now,” Curtin said.
“And when students leave the program, we work very closely with Mass Rehab and programs such as Opportunity Works and other agencies that will assist them in their adult life,” she said. “We also work with the (Greater Haverhill) Chamber of Commerce, which reimburses the high school store for any nutritious food items we sell there. We submit the bill to the chamber and they reimburse us up to a certain amount.”
At the end of the school year, the program holds an awards ceremony where it recognizes students and businesses.
“This program would not be as successful without the businesses that support us,” Curtin said.
Businesses and organizations interested in learning more about the Learning for Life program are asked to contact Curtin at 978-374-5723 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
HOW IT WORKS
Special needs students up to age 22 receive training to prepare them for jobs.
Training includes creating resumes, learning phone skills and developing other skills needed in the workplace.
Participating businesses take on students as interns and sometimes as employees.