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Hospital staff, special-needs kids learn from one other

Karen Dybis
Special to The Detroit News

Wyandotte — They laugh. They tease. They tell stories about summer vacation and their adventures. To anyone passing by, this group of teens and young adults could be in any classroom in Metro Detroit.

Yet this group of students from Jo Brighton Stills Center is singular in many ways. The class of about 25 special-needs students has just started its school year at Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital, where students take classes and volunteer in departments such as the pharmacy, admissions and guest services. They also prepare emergency packets for ambulance rigs.

Organizers hope that the Henry Ford-based, largely vocational training program, one of several offered at Jo Brighton, will land most of these students regular jobs, steady paychecks, apartments and, with effort and hard work, fulfilling lives well beyond the two-year program.

Jo Brighton Skills Center, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary at Wyandotte’s community-centered hospital, is about much more than “Our Town” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” although the students read those classics just like their peers in regular high school and early college. It’s about being productive, gaining social skills and boosting their confidence, said teacher Larry Semetko.

“What the students learn here I could never teach them at school,” Semetko said. “It’s really a model program.”

It’s also about the hospital staff, which says they learn as much from these student volunteers as they do during the school year. The staff works closely with the students, hosts holiday parties for them and packs the annual talent show, where students show off their star power.

“They bring so much to us; we look forward to them being here. The hospital is so quiet (over summer break) without them,” said Betty Nalepa, who heads the Henry Ford Wyandotte information technology office. “They create an air of positivity around them that affects our whole organization. ... They do more for us than we do for them.”

Student Bland Dillard works in the medical supplies room with the help of teacher Robin Burdick at Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital.

The Skills Center, part of Wyandotte Public Schools, was established in 1973 and services students 14-18 years old with moderate cognitive impairments such as autism and Down syndrome and work skills for students 18-26. It is funded by state foundation grants and the Wayne County special education millage.

Altogether, about 250 students attend Jo Brighton. The Henry Ford option is one of several offered to them; some are enrolled in a job training program at Southland Mall, others at an independent living program.

Michigan law requires special education services to be offered for children and young adults to age 26.

The average day for students in the Henry Ford program at Jo Brighton, named for a beloved Wyandotte teacher and education advocate, runs similarly to a high school. The students gather inside a small classroom, where they chat about their weekend activities. Once the class is called to order, everyone listens intently for the day’s assignments.

They work until lunch. The afternoon starts with educational instruction then another round of volunteering in areas such as medical records or food services. The students rotate volunteer assignments every 10 weeks to cover each department equally.

Bland Dillard, a 23-year-old second-year veteran of the Jo Brighton program at Henry Ford, eagerly takes visitors on a hospital tour.

“Gotta keep up,” he admonishes slowpokes. Dillard moves through the complex with ease, high-fiving hospital staff while restocking essentials in multiple departments.

“I feel comfortable here. This is my home away from home,” Dillard said, noting that he knows everyone from the hospital CEO to the sanitation staff.

Denise Brooks Williams, president and CEO of Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital, said the students are a gift to the hospital. Her youngest aunt was developmentally disabled and volunteered in a similar program, so working with the Jo Brighton students is an honor, Brooks Williams said.

“I feel like a part of the program; they’re like an extension of my family,” Brooks Williams said. “We gain so much from their volunteer work, but the truth is they give so much to our organization. They’re not shy to reach out, give a hug or say hello. ... This is what health care is about: finding partnerships with the community. We are really proud to partner with Jo Brighton for this program.”