Young and old work to find independence

Embracing the community is a top priority for Southminster, a continuing care retirement community on Park Road. AA023108

That’s why they’ve worked to become part of the fabric of south Charlotte by connecting and working with local students at Smithfield Elementary, Quail Hollow Middle and South Mecklenburg High. It takes a community to give students the support, help and encouragement they need, David Dougherty, the human resources director at the retirement community, said, and Southminster residents and staff love doing their part.

Southminster has worked for almost two years with the Occupational Course of Study (OCS) program at South Mecklenburg High School, where students with developmental disabilities work to gain job skills that will help foster independence after graduation. The school also works with area businesses such as Food Lion, BI-LO and Kmart for the program.

But the partnership with Southminster is different, Sharon Wright, the job coach for the OCS program at the school, said.

“Southminster is unique because the staff over there works to pretty much match up the students in the area they are interested in,” Wright said. “They really work hard to hook them up with the things they are interested in, not just make them go clean.”

Four to six students in the OCS program have made a weekly visit to Southminster each semester since the partnership began to spend time learning various real-life job skills through hands-on training. The complexity of the Southminster community provides various job opportunities to students, Dougherty said, from working in the resident-run thrift store Encore Gallery, learning customer service and restaurant operations at the community’s Oak Leaf Grille or working in housekeeping, maintenance and landscaping. Southminster staff is able to match students’ skills and interests, giving them more confidence and love for their work.

“Our goal here for our residents is to let them be as independent as they can for as long as they can,” Dougherty said. “The goal for these students is to be independent. We love helping them with that. And we’re used to dealing with people who have challenges – it just fits nicely with our business.”

Wright said her students enjoy visiting Southminster more than any of the other job sites, not only because the job opportunities are greater, but also because they like interacting with Southminster residents. The intergenerational aspect is a real drawl for both the students and the residents, Wright said, and also provides for an even more unique learning opportunity.

“It’s been a good experience for the students, and they like listening to the elderly because they tell good stories,” Wright said.

In addition to the real-life job experience, Wright also teaches students needed skills to not only get a job, but also to retain it. She teaches the students interviewing skills, how to dress for success, resume writing, how to read paychecks and more. The OCS program is a federally funded program that works to ensure highly functioning individuals with developmentally disabilities have the support and skills needed to successfully become active citizens of society.

The jobs provided by Southminster and other partners “helps students pretty much gain a sense of responsibility,” Wright said. “It teaches them teamwork and gives them some advisory skills while helping to boost their self-esteem. Many times they feel they are kept inside the box – this allows them to go outside the box and be a normal participant in society.”

By Morgan Smith

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