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Disabled Students Learn Job Skills

May 12, 2014

Katherine Rosenberg, Naples Daily News

May 09--It wasn't too long ago that a Palmetto Ridge High School classmate told Roshaka Davis she'd wind up living under a bridge.

Diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) during her elementary school years, Davis spent most of her schooling in special needs classes.

Feeling she didn't belong, she grew frustrated, acted out, got in some fights. She took anger management classes for two years.

"I felt everyone around me knew what they were doing in life, but I felt lost and confused," Davis said last week as she was honored at the 2014 Project Explore Celebration and Awards Dinner. "I was not happy with myself and embarrassed of myself that I had a disability. In high school, I was made to feel that I was this weird, angry person with no future. ... That's so sad."

Davis, 21, is the picture of poise and grace today, without a trace of anger. And she has all the tools she needs to reach her goal of someday providing child care services, like her mother, who runs a day care. That's thanks in part to Project Explore and teacher Anne Fredette.

Now in its 13th year at Moorings Park -- a continuing care retirement community in Naples -- the federally-funded grant program is for students 18 and older with physical or mental disabilities, who want direction or options on career paths.

The Collier County School District runs the program through its Lorenzo Walker Technical Institute. There were 23 students in the program this year. They can stay in the program for up to three years.

"For students who may not really know what they wanted to do for a career, they tend to be able to go through school and just follow suit, not making their own decisions but going along. Or they're broken and they feel their opinion on decisions doesn't matter," Fredette said. "We show them areas they can work in. When they fall in love with something, it's amazing what can happen, their abilities become huge."

The students explore those options at Moorings Park, a retirement community that offers varying levels of assisted living and health care. It employs nurses, cooks, information technology specialists, business administrators, receptionists, janitors and facility managers among other jobs the students can learn to do.

But it is more than a job, Fredette said. The students find mentors in the Moorings Park staff, and are taught life skills such as how to read social cues, she said.

The biggest focus for Fredette has been getting the students to self-identify their disability. It's something that, surprisingly, is often not discussed in K-12 classrooms or at home, she said.

Students can grow up unsure why they are in special classes or how they are different. Fredette works to change that, to arm the student with an understanding of their disability so it has less power to limit them.

She begins by asking a student to describe his or her disability. Over the years she's often heard students say they don't have one, only to discover they haven't been talked to about it.

That's how it went with Davis, who now calls Project Explore her "comfort zone, her happy place." Fredette began to tear up as her student talked, saying she's never heard Davis describe it that way.

"When she came here, it was, 'They said I could never work with kids because I have such bad anger issues,'" Fredette said. "And I can see where they may have been going, however, guess who's now going to be going into child care. Because she's amazing. She just had to realize that she had the confidence. It's just that missing piece."

Fredette is not the type of teacher who needed an epiphany to make her better or more compassionate; she had already spent her entire career trying to better the lives of these young adults. She got one anyway, around Christmas.

"It's not a secret and I'm not ashamed, but in December actually I was told I have malignant melanoma. And I went through surgery and I am super happy to tell you that I am fine right now," Fredette told the cheering award ceremony crowd last Thursday.

She had surgery in January and was using a wheelchair when she noticed people were treating her differently. As part of her orders to stay out of the sun when she's at sporting events for her son, she uses an umbrella to cover up, she said.

"I felt for a split second, embarrassment. It took three of my students to sit with me in the classroom and say, 'Miss, why does it matter?' I really had that 'aha moment.' My students just told me everything that I've been telling them and I just got all my words back from them. And I am so grateful," Fredette said as she began to cry.

Fredette has always told her told her students to turn a negative into a positive and she's worked to do the same with her battle with cancer. But even before her firsthand experience with explaining her own limitations, she can put her students at ease about their disabilities, said Michelle Dings, a tutor at Project Explore.

"I think she was put here to do this job. I think she has a huge impact on these students; you'll see their disability and she will talk them through it and work through it so they can work around it, and she can make them understand that they're OK and that they are accepted in society," Dings said.

Davis, who has a job at Subway, smiles all the time and is about as quick-witted as they come. She's not the same girl who started at Project Explore last year with a short temper and a lack of self-confidence.

"It's kind of been challenging but being in that program really opened my eyes to say, 'Hey, you know, I may have this disability but I can do everything everyone else is doing,'" Davis said. "I feel great about the program; I feel great about my future."


(c)2014 the Naples Daily News (Naples, Fla.)

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Original headline: Students with disabilities find job tools, hope with Project Explore

Source: (c)2014 the Naples Daily News (Naples, Fla.)

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