For students who have emotional challenges or face other obstacles to learning, school provides a built-in support network that can be vital to their success.
After graduation, however, that safety net often dissipates.
A collaboration between The Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School and Bargains in a Box aims to address that.
It provides on-the-job experience to students with mental health or emotional challenges, as well as those who are on the autism spectrum.
That experience can help them land full-time jobs later, which is the real goal: Curbing traditionally high unemployment among people with emotional challenges or autism.
“It doesn’t take a lot to help people on the spectrum so they can have a successful future,” said Peter Myers, co-executive director of the school at 6245 S. Ingleside Ave. “By doing this now we benefit our society and even though it’s not a huge investment, it is a huge return.”
Over the summer, five participants, ranging from 16 to 18, worked two days a week for four hours at two of the discount chain’s eight stores, gaining work experience.
At Bargains in a Box, managers would check in with students, answer questions and make sure they felt comfortable.
Desiree Triplett, district manager for Bargains in a Box, said some were “shy and sheltered” at the start of the program, but by the end it “gave them the opportunity to see that they can do things on their own and be responsible for their decision-making.”
During their time at the store, students would cycle through jobs such as stocking shelves, working as cashiers and pricing items.
“It was a good first job,” said Tom, a 17-year-old student at Shankman, also known as the O-School. “We had a good team and it was efficient and fun. Sometimes it was hard to keep up with everything but it was rewarding on the long run in terms of experience — not just because of the money.”
“If I didn’t have this experience going into my first job, I’d probably feel unprepared,” said 17-year-old Anthony, who also participated in the program. “It was a good fit and a gave me a chance to get experience before applying to other jobs.”
The program started this summer, and the two organizations plan to keep working together. Bargains in a Box recently hired their first official part-time employee from an O-School affiliate and there are plans for a new batch of students to begin the job-training program next month.
Myers sees the collaboration as “life-changing” for his students, providing a self-esteem boost and a sense of accomplishment.
Brad Nardick, of Bargains in a Box, said the stores’ goal is to continue to emphasize “interpersonal relationships” and offer opportunities for practicing that in a real world setting.
“We want our workforce to be a representation of all people, including those who may have a harder time getting jobs,” Nardick said. “Our goal is to actively combat the trend of people not finding work and that starts with life-skill building and building confidence. We want to be a training ground for that.”