Students at Moore-Mickens Education Center have been as busy as Santa's elves these past weeks as they rushed to complete orders for their handmade holiday greeting cards and gift tags.
Between their last two customers, there were 10 dozen cards and nine dozen reindeer tags to get out by the end of last week at Mickens' Specialty Cards, one of a handful of on-site businesses fostering on-the-job training and employability skills for students enrolled in the school's Exceptional Student Education program.
That on the heels of creating Christmas ornaments made out of recycled materials for a new seasonal enterprise called Second Life, which is overseen by ESE teacher Gayle Lovelace.
Making a holiday card is an assembly-line process; a meticulous task that takes lots of patience and dexterity to get those tiny, plastic, bobble eyes glued properly on reindeer cutouts or stamping a holiday greeting "Let Earth Receive Her King" smack in the middle of that sheet of pearlized paper.
Everybody has a job to do.
"We're working hard all day, every day," said Angelica Tull, 20, who was making gift tags at a table with Alexandre Williams, 19, and Kelly Butterfield, 19.
Even so, there was time for a holiday song and some small talk about things like what's on the Christmas dinner menu.
"It's the same stuff as Thanksgiving: turkey, green beans, macaroni and cheese," said Ashley Nottingham, 19, as she gingerly placed corner stickers on red stock paper while Kelly Butterfield, 19, sang "Deck the halls with something holly."
The angel cards seem to be a favorite for customers this year, but those who receive any one of these speciality cards are sure to know there's a good thought being sent their way, said Mary Lou Jordan, a job placement teacher and transitional specialist who oversees the school's specialty card business as well as another campus enterprise, Mickens' Pickins garden center.
"It's amazing," she said. "I think people are very surprised by the quality of work that comes out of the classroom."
But word has gotten out. With the help of River Ridge High Future Business Leaders of America students who produced and printed a catalogue for the business, orders have more than doubled since the first year, Jordan said. This year's net output was 110 orders of cards that sell for $6 a dozen and 115 orders of tags that are a bargain at $1 a dozen.
"It's been a collaborative effort," said Jordan, noting that a $300 grant from the Pasco Education Foundation Inc., helped purchase materials for this year's batch of greetings.
Students also work regularly throughout the school year making doggie treats for another on-site venture called Yapper Snappers and human treats for Sweet Delights, which has been housed at Saint Leo University under the direction of Moore-Mickens Job placement and transition specialist Mary Jo McEwen.
Profits go back into purchasing new materials for all the businesses such as a much-needed garden storage shed for Mickens' Pickins. It also pays for an end-of-the-year party.
"We celebrate success," Jordan said.
While students enjoy some good hands-on training, it's not all about producing product.
"Students use life skills, cooking skills, basic math skills," Jordan said. "But there's also teamwork and ownership. We incorporate employability skills: how to meet deadlines, paying attention to detail, supply and demand, working out strategies on how to work more effectively."
"We have a business plan. We have business meetings. We brainstorm a lot," she said.
Students will be doing lots of that after the winter break when they start making preparations for the upcoming planting season for Mickens' Pickins. Fueled by a $1,100 Florida Ag in the Classroom grant and a $1,180 Splash Grant from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, there's sure to be plenty to sell come harvest time: marigolds, zinnias and perhaps some vegetables, too.
The spring plant sale should be sometime in late March or early April, Jordan said, "depending on how the plants are doing."