WOODSTOCK – Four and a half miles.
That’s the distance students in the Life Connections transitional program travel each week: from Woodstock North High School down Raffel Road to Route 120, along bottlenecked Route 47 to Lake Avenue. End at Walmart, grab ingredients, reverse the trip another four and a half miles.
It’s a weekly routine for the members of District 200’s special-needs program for 18- to 21-year-olds that is made simple by the contributions of a local business owner. Looking to find more reliable and time-efficient transportation than the buses the program had used in the past, Woodstock North teacher Mike DeGrassi sat down before the school year to call local cab companies.
First on the list? Sunshine Taxi.
Owner Tamra Tomasello was receptive. DeGrassi told her he’d run it up the ladder and secure the needed funding to pay her, Tomasello remembered.
“It’s only going to the grocery store,” she said Thursday. “I said, ‘No, we’ll fund it.’”
During the Life Connections program, which helps young adults transition to a life after school, students engross themselves in the surrounding community, interning with area organizations and applying for and – with luck – finding jobs.
They also learn life skills like planning, shopping for and cooking meals. Thursday, they made macaroni and cheese from scratch and invited Tomasello to a classroom lunch as a thank you.
“This is kind of our celebration every week,” DeGrassi said.
Students grated and chopped Swiss cheese late Thursday morning. Sami Gomez, 20, wheeled to a counter and pressed the grey plastic button of an electric chopper while classmate Mackenzie Pruden, 21, held it steady.
“Everything,” Pruden said later. That’s Pruden’s favorite meal the class has made this year: everything.
“I liked the mashed potatoes,” Gomez said. “Thanksgiving.”
Students shoveled elbow macaroni noodles into a steaming pot of the melted cheese and milk, then mixed in broccoli. They spread it into casserole pans, topped with bread crumbs, and baked it at 375 degrees.
Ding. Time to eat.
When the students exit the program, the idea is to find them an outlet. Many hope to find work in some capacity – paid, if possible – but finding something to occupy time and provide a sense of fulfillment is just as important. The life skills program looks to set students up with those opportunities while helping students prepare for a more independent future.
“Once they’re done with school, they’re done,” DeGrassi said. “So we have to get them prepared.”
The students have been as affected by a faulty job market as anyone, said Nancy Schuette, another of the program’s teachers. She made a rough estimate that about a quarter of graduating students make post-graduation work arrangements.
A few of the 10 or so students in DeGrassi’s class Thursday have jobs. One works at a local bakery. Another commutes to Crystal Lake. A third works at Papa Murphy’s.
“I would say these guys are excellent workers,” said Schuette, who splits her time between Woodstock North and McHenry County College – where students in more independent tiers of the program go. “They’re always so willing to give their best.”