Ready to adult: 18-plus program gives students life skills

By Austin Jackson | Published Wednesday, February 20, 2019
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Life skills

Life skills – Decatur 18-plus students Jacob Salazar and Jerry Rushing fold towels with Decatur ISD paraprofessional Lorrie Leonard at Fit-N-Wise Friday. The program brings students age 18 to 22 who live with special needs out into the community to learn life skills. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

The popular kids – Jerry Rushing, Jacob Salazar and Daisy Fernandez – arrive to class at Fit-N-Wise Friday, dishing out high fives and hugs.

After brightening the room, with Jacob lifting up a friend he met through Decatur High School in a bear hug, the students buckle down and get to work.

Jerry, Jacob and Daisy, students in Decatur ISD’s 18-plus program, fold towels into neat stacks, 20 at a time in the physical therapy room.

They’re here to work and learn, preparing for a potential job down the road.

These students live with special needs but are in a common place for 18 to 22 year olds.

The classroom isn’t a traditional college campus setting, but like other students, who recently crossed the stage at Decatur High School, they are in the midst of learning how to be adults.

Some days they learn how to cook. On others, they learn job and social skills. They’re learning how to live life independently.

“I’ve learned a lot,” Jerry said. “I love getting out into the community to work. I’m looking forward to getting a job.”

Jerry has a dream of becoming a basketball coach in the NBA one day. If a coaching job doesn’t open up soon, he hopes to work as a mechanic.

“I like to get my hands dirty working on cars,” he said.

Daisy hopes to work with children. Her favorite days of the week is when she is helping out at the library and daycare. It’s where she flourishes.

“I love kids,” she said.

Finding independence

Finding independence – Decatur 18-plus students Jerry Rushing and Daisy Fernandez learn job skills at Fit-N-Wise Friday. The program is currently seeking businesses that would welcome 18-plus students to help work in the afternoons. To sign up, call Decatur Director of Special Programs April Whisenant at 940-393-7160. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Jacob isn’t sure what he wants to do, yet. But he has a few more years until he’s finished with the program. In the meantime, he specializes in cool handshakes and warm hugs, sharing his contagious, bubbly personality.

The class of three is a tight-knit group, led by April Whisenant, Decatur ISD’s director of special programs. She’s led the 18-plus life skills program for about one year, meeting Monday through Friday in the afternoon.

“It’s my favorite part of my job. They bring joy to your life,” Whisenant said. “Everybody deserves to be independent. Everybody deserves to have things they want to do in life. They deserve to get out and make a difference in the community.”

Whisenant takes the students into the community to learn, meeting at WARM, elementary schools or the Decatur library.

“They do anything that any student would do when they’re 18, 19, 20,” she said. “We’re trying to do whatever any other student would do at their age.”

Teaching the program is a personal calling for Whisenant. Her brother lives with special needs.

“I just see him and what he can do,” Whisenant said. “He just wants to be like everybody else. Everybody wants to be typical and have a life. My goal is making that happen. I see how I want him to be treated and do it for the kids here, too.”

The students aren’t the only ones learning. Members of the community and employees at the various meeting sites learn something from the students as well.

“They are so awesome,” said Exercise Specialist Madison Horne, as she helped teach the students how to play badminton Friday. “They love it here, and we love them. They motivate me. They have such great personalities and make my day better every time I see them.”

The 18-plus program is individualized to prepare each student for independent living. Whisenant doesn’t just teach them how to cook, but how to cook what they like to eat and use the tools they have in their kitchen.

On Fridays, they come to Fit-N-Wise to help fold towels and work out. Last Friday, they played badminton, and Jerry got to show off his skills on the basketball court, making layups and skyhooks look easy.

Whisenant said the goal of the program is to prepare students to enter the community and to live a normal life – to get a job and keep a job, cook their own meals, make friends and experience a balanced life. Just like anyone else.

It’s what she wants for her brother, and what she wants for her students.

This year, Jerry and Daisy will exit the program with life skills to pursue their dreams.

“They have choices they can make in life,” Whisenant said. “We want to help them be able to decide and live the life they want.”

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