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Stonington - One morning this month the first visitors of the morning came through the main gate at Mystic Aquarium holding their tickets.
They were immediately greeted by Stonington High School students Billy Wilcox and Sean Martin.
"Good morning. Welcome to Mystic Aquarium," Wilcox told them.
Martin punched their tickets and handed them back. And if the visitors had asked, he would have been ready to tell them the times of the sea lion show or where the bathrooms are.
"You have a nice day," Martin told them.
Inside a corridor leading to some of the aquarium's administrative offices, Alex Holder and Drew Solomon were delivering breakfast from the Penguin Cafe to employees.
They handed Kateri Wheeler, the aquarium's director of human resources, her strawberry yogurt and coffee, took her money and gave her change.
"Thank you. Have a nice day," they told her as they made more deliveries before heading back to the Penguin Cafe to tally up their receipts and make sure they match the total of the order slips.
The students are part of the high school's TLC Community Classroom, which teacher Deidre Toole created to teach students up to age 21 with intellectual disabilities the work and life skills they need, while also introducing them to local employers who might hire them upon graduation. The program also keeps the students in their hometown instead of attending costly out of district placements.
The program, which has been in place at The Cottage and Avalon Health Center, the memory care and skilled nursing components of the StoneRidge retirement, has expanded to the aquarium where six students spend one day a week working.
"This is so different than Avalon. It's a whole different world for them," Toole said.
At the aquarium, they learn facts about the animals, the times of the different shows and the "dos and don'ts" for visitors which they can pass on to them while working with aquarium staff members at the exhibits.
They also conduct inventories of animals in the tanks, clean windows, do a variety of clericals tasks and help prepare for special events such as the recent Festival of Lights. They attend morning meeting with docents to learn what is new at the aquarium.
They also have a classroom off the main exhibit floor where they work on skills such as how to interact with people in the workplace by making eye contact and using proper body language. The students learn techniques such as taking deep breaths and clasping their hands if something upsets them. They also talk about hygiene, dressing properly for work and how to prepare for the workday.
Toole said she tried to get a few students to work a few hours a week at the aquarium a few years ago but was told they would have to go through the volunteer training program.
So last year, she approached Steve Coan, the president and CEO of Sea Research Foundation, the aquarium's parent organization, and told him about the program.
"He said 'that shouldn't have happened and said here's the contact you need," she recalled.
That was Kelly Matis, the aquarium's vice president of education and public conservation programs.
"This is a great way for us to partner with the schools and for our staff to see the great work that students with intellectual disabilities can do," she said. "They're doing real work when they are here, work that's helping aquarium staff get their jobs done. Everyone is benefitting from this partnership."
The aquarium's work with the program earned it the Diversity Award from the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums this year.
"We're hoping we can work with other aquariums to do this in their communities," she said.
Talking about Wilcox, who was getting ready to greet the visitors, Toole said he has picked up the skills quickly "because he loves being here."
"You can practice in the classroom but it's not a real place,'" she said, adding that she stresses to her students who all wear aquarium shirts that they are representing the institution. "They are really a part of the facility here."
Toole thanked the aquarium for being so warm and welcoming to her and her students.
"Every time I've asked for something they have said 'sure.' They've been great," she said. "And the parents have been thrilled with the changes they see in their kids."
"I believe in figuring out what these students can do and focus in on that," she added. " The students just need the tools to be successful."
Aquarium employees, too, said they have seen the benefits for the students.
"It's neat just seeing the improvement they've been making," said Jim Steele, who was working at the front gate with Martin and Wilcox.
"It's fabulous. The first week they were kind of shy and timid but now they are more confident. It's like greeting a coworker every morning," she said.