One step forward, two steps back.
That's what life has been like for some members of the Class of 2008 who struggle with severe mental or physical disabilities.
There are hundreds of them across Pinellas County. Next week, they'll graduate with about 6,000 of their peers, many of whom will go on to college, a career and a secure future.
But kids in that smaller group, who attend school until they're 22, will celebrate other victories: learning to tie a shoe, to tell time, to write their names.
And thanks to a district initiative that trains severely disabled students for the work force, about two dozen will celebrate something else: a job.
If not for the program, their parents either would have to hire someone to take care of them or quit their jobs to stay home with them, said job coach Mary Sharpe.
"They would graduate into nothingness."
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Cindy Dahlen had just begun to grieve her husband's death in 1997 when doctors diagnosed her son Shane with autism. Overwhelmed, Dahlen was grateful the district had instructors who could teach Shane skills other kids pick up so easily, things like how to make change and shop for groceries.
Once Shane got to Osceola High School, his teachers wanted to start preparing him for a job. Dahlen worried they were asking too much. But she worried more about who would take care of him if she couldn't.
So she agreed when Sharpe suggested Shane begin training as an imaging technician at Integrated Health Plan in St. Petersburg.
Seven months later, Shane, 22, has reached every goal Sharpe has set. He hasn't missed a day of work, and his anxiety about getting things right has decreased.
"If I make a mistake now, I just handle it," Shane said recently.
Since the employment program debuted in Pinellas in 1987, Sharpe and the district's other three job coaches have trained and found jobs for hundreds of severely disabled students at places like McDonald's, Publix and Lowe's.
But many still go unserved.
Among the challenges: convincing parents that their children are capable of working, and finding transportation for them. But the biggest challenge, Sharpe said, is finding employers willing to take a chance on hiring a severely disabled student.
According to a recent study of Florida employers by the Able Trust, a Tallahassee agency that champions the cause of disabled citizens, 50 percent of the state's businesses have no formal policy for hiring people with disabilities.
"We're still a long way from believing that people with disabilities can work," Sharpe said.
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Abandoned by his family at 16, Michael Goodman came into the supported employment program as a student at Nina Harris Exceptional Student Education Center. Sharpe trained him to work in the dish room in the school cafeteria, and the district recently hired him full time.
Being in a familiar setting is important for Michael, said Val LaFrance, a supported living coach who has been working with the 22-year-old for several months. Like many disabled people, LaFrance said, Michael is vulnerable.
He's also punctual and diligent, according to cafeteria manager Kim Romeo.
"He sees his job as a point of pride," she said.
Sharpe placed another Nina Harris student, Regina Perez, in a similar job at a Pinellas Park nursing home. She trained the 22-year-old, who has Down's syndrome and is deaf in one ear, to wipe down tables in the dining room, wash dishes and vacuum.
But Regina found her true niche — visiting with the elderly residents, patting their hands and faces, and encouraging them to eat — on her own.
"She may not know their names, but she cares about everyone there," Sharpe said. "She gives them hope on a daily basis."
Most of the students Sharpe works with don't understand the concept of money. Their parents or guardians keep track of the $7 to $9.50 an hour they earn. They also have the responsibility of ensuring their children, who actually are young adults, receive continued employment support.
When things work the way they're supposed to, Sharpe said, graduating seniors are referred to the Agency for Persons with Disabilities for continued services. They're placed with another job coach who monitors their progress.
She hopes that will happen for Shane, Michael and Regina.
"It would be tough if three months from now they lose their jobs because the agency didn't support them," Sharpe said.
• • •
Sharpe and the district's other job coaches began the necessary "fade-off" with their students weeks ago. They had sign-off meetings with the employers and gave last-minute instructions to the families.
The hardest part always is saying goodbye to the students, Sharpe said. The next time she sees the ones she trained this year, it will be as a friend rather than as their coach.
"I know I've done the best I can do," she said. "It's now time to let them be on their own."