TAMPA — Dan Gallagher could hardly contain his pride when asked about a big event in his near future.
"I'm graduating!'' Gallagher said. "I've learned some new skills.''
Gallagher, 22, is part of the Sickles High School CHOICE Academy for special-needs students, some of whom have autism or other intellectual disabilities. After completing their high-school credits, the students (usually ages 18 to 22) move to the academy, which teaches life skills and practical experience in the working world.
The students are part of the "Gryphon's Car Wash,'' which has given them potential job skills and experience at running a business. They work at tasks such as running the hoses, applying the soap, detailing, rinsing and cleaning the tires.
The car-wash service is offered to Sickles administrators, faculty and staff. There's a student bookkeeper, Marcus Lopez, who collects the money and documents the budget. The funds are reinvested back into the business, perhaps to buy a shade tent, new hoses or other material. The business has a sponsor, a commercial car-wash firm called RCP America, which provides cleaning supplies.
"Overall, it's just such a beautiful and useful concept,'' said Sickles principal Jake Russell, who is finishing his 12th year at the school before shifting to the same position at Chamberlain High School. "It's win-win all the way around.''
Gallagher's father, Patrick, said the experience has been invaluable for his son.
"It's a big confidence-booster for him,'' Gallagher's father said. "He has (four) brothers, some of whom have jobs, and can relate to the idea of being responsible for something and doing your job effectively.
"When he comes home, he has such pride when he talks about whose car he washed and how it went that day.' He talks about how he wants to get a job like his brothers. I can't say enough about what the CHOICE Academy is doing.''
CHOICE is an acronym for Creating How Our Independence Can help us Excel.
"It reflects the mission statement that all of our schools follow in that we are preparing students for life,'' said CHOICE instructor Lisa Gaspar, who two years ago worked with Russell in conceiving the idea for a car-wash business.
They considered making pins, selling jewelry or serving coffee. Students were almost universal in their desire to be outside. So traction began for a car wash. They began with hoses, sponges and materials that could be rounded up. Once a customer base was established and a sponsor was brought aboard, the business has been self-sustaining.
"I think it's phenomenal,'' said Karen Stevens, an Exceptional Student Education (ESE) specialist. "They started with nothing but an idea. They are learning skills and they've already had people in the (car-wash) industry asking about giving some of them a job. You can see how they just blossom.''
The CHOICE Academy has course offerings that include preparation for adult living, career experiences, goal-setting and self-advocacy.
Nothing has been more popular than the practical application of a car wash, though.
"These students have gone from knowing nothing about washing cars to having lots of knowledge to understanding the money part of a business,'' said Haygan Bethel, an assistant in the CHOICE program along with Melanie Dinsmore. "Some of them may need caretakers, but some will be able to function in a regular job.
"They are learning to work together and follow the instructions of their supervisor. It's practical training for the real world.''
Gaspar, a business major, once worked in the New York corporate world. When she started a family, she left that career and began substitute teaching after relocating to Tampa. While at Sickles, she was drawn to the special-needs students.
Russell told her about a staff opening in that field.
So Gaspar chased it, getting certified and jumping in with enthusiasm. She now says, "I would never leave this.''
"It's incredibly gratifying,'' Gaspar said. "The car wash is such a labor of love for all of us. It has created so much good.''
Gaspar refers to Gallagher as "Dan the Man,'' saying he is "seriously versatile'' as he hops from vacuuming, detailing, washing and drying. When Gallagher beams with pride after completing his tasks, she also feels a sense of accomplishment.
"That's what keeps me coming back and all of us coming back,'' she said. "They go from shy to confident. They acquire skills. They prepare for the real world. It is truly great stuff.''
Contact Joey Johnston at [email protected]