At 7:45 a.m., Jake Heflin, 15, is diligently stocking orange juice in the cafeteria kitchen at Wesley Chapel High School. One by one, he unloads the juice cartons from a cardboard box, places them ever so neatly on metal trays, and then stacks them in the walk-in cooler so they will be ready for breakfast the next morning.
To be sure, it is a repetitious task, one that others might consider dull, tedious, menial labor.
But for Jake, who is autistic, arranging the juices in a specific pattern on a tray every morning is a pleasure. His ability to complete this daily task is a real measurement of progress.
"He likes it a lot," said Abel Robinson, an instructional assistant who oversees Jake's work. "He gets mad when he has to go to speech every day because he likes (working in the cafeteria) so much."
A future for him
Jake, who is enrolled in the exceptional student education program at Wesley Chapel, has had his share of difficulties in school. He even spent a semester as a home-bound student because his behavior was deemed too disruptive for the classroom.
Jake was definitely considered a challenge, the kind that Jim Cracchiolo, the behavioral specialist at Wesley Chapel High, relishes. That might be why Cracchiolo got a call from the district office asking if he would accept Jake into the program at Wesley Chapel High.
"Bring him on in," Cracchiolo said.
A year later, Jake is no longer prone to the kind of outbursts that sent him home. Best of all, Jake is proving that he might be able to make a successful transition into the working world.
"He's a hard worker," Cracchiolo said. "Jake with the juices is now doing 85 to 90 percent of the work by himself. Abel only does about 10 to 15 percent. It didn't start out that way, but we saw a future for him."
There's no crystal ball for these things. It's really all about seeing the strengths in each student, Cracchiolo said. That's something the behavioral specialist said he first learned to do as a student at Wesley Chapel High. After finding out that a physics class was unavailable, Cracchiolo, who graduated in 2001, ended up in a Peers Class, in which he worked with three students with autism.
"We had a lot of breakthroughs in that year," Cracchiolo said. "I learned then that every kid has potential.
"Once you tap into the function of their behavior and give them something they can be successful at, you see a whole turn of events," he said.
"We feel that every kid can work somewhere, from the kid who has no language skills to the kid who has limited motor skills to the higher functioning kid."
That means that while Jake stocks juices, Jacob Stanley, 16, lays out cookies on a baking tray.
And Michael Fergus 16, who hums constantly, works with instructional assistant Val Youmans placing ready-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in plastic containers.
Patricia Williamson, 19, who needs some help gloving up for salad prep duty, puts the lids on the green salads lined up on the kitchen counter. Other students keep busy stocking the cafeteria fruit and beverage stations and see to other tasks as they are asked.
Once they are finished with those chores, some will shred papers, stuff envelopes or collect recyclable materials from every classroom.
Others will go to work, for free, at the local Publix, Bealls or UPS store.
"We try to give them the behavioral abilities to perform at levels that would make them employable — to go to a job site and perform," Cracchiolo said. "Some kids aren't going to do well at a job, but some kids can excel at a job, and if they do, we should let them run with it."
To that end, Cracchiolo is hoping other local businesses will offer his students work — even small jobs like stuffing envelopes or shredding papers that can be done at the school or at the business site.
"I'd love to get some of those new Wiregrass shops," he said. "They could use us in such a way that we are helping them 110 percent. My guys don't think about breaks. They don't think about calling their girlfriends or boyfriends on their cell phones or text messaging. They just think about getting the job done."
"The whole program is great. It's a win-win situation, there's no doubt about it," said Jerry Gambell, the food and nutrition manager at Wesley Chapel High. "People that have these disabilities have unknown talents that they just need someone to bring them out."
"I enjoy the heck out of them," said Chris Van Stry, the Wesley Chapel High food and nutrition assistant manager who is in charge of doling out work to the students. "We love them. And I'm telling you, they do an awful lot of work for us and they do a good job. I don't know where we'd be without them."