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    Wednesday, June 12, 2024

    Rewards keep coming for students, community in TLC Community Classroom

    Tyler Homand, 18, center, leads an exercise session for residents at StoneRidge retirement community in Mystic. Homand, who has autism, is a student in Stonington High School's TLC Community Classroom program. The program provides job skills to students with special needs by getting them out of the classroom and into the workplace.

    Stonington - It's a Thursday morning in The Cottage, a section of the StoneRidge retirement community, and Stonington High School senior Tyler Homand is preparing to lead a group of nine residents with varying degrees of Alzheimer's disease through an exercise routine.

    As the music video begins, Homand, who has autism, sings along while leading the seated residents through a regime of moving their arms and legs to songs such as "Moon River," "You Are My Sunshine" and the "Party Polka."

    "Here we go. Do like me," he urges the residents and a few of his fellow students as they twirl colored scarves to the music. "Good job, good job."

    A few minutes later, 18-year-old Homand stands at the head of a large dining table and serenades fellow student Amy Souza with a rendition of "Just Imagine" as the group celebrates her 20th birthday. Then he offers clues and encouragement to the senior citizens as he leads them in a game of bingo in which the students help the residents match laminated photos of everyone in the group to photos on their game boards.

    A short time before joining the circle of residents, Homand was in another section of the sprawling StoneRidge complex meticulously folding napkins into bird shapes and checking the lunch place settings in the dining room for missing napkins.

    Teacher Deidre Toole has worked with this group of students since they were in the sixth grade, helping them handle class work and participate in activities such as the prom and unified sports.

    "But we realized they are not going to college. So what is their life going to be like?" she asked while taking a break from helping the students fold the napkins. "I said, 'We need to get them ready for a real job.'"

    Toole created the TLC Community Classroom, which teaches students with intellectual disabilities the work and life skills they need, while also introducing them to local employers who might hire them upon graduation.

    Six students aged 18 to 21 work at businesses and organizations such as StoneRidge, Big Y, Mystic Aquarium and the Mystic Chamber of Commerce for part of each school day. During other parts of the day, they learn skills such as how to write a resume, interview for a job and dress and act properly at work. They also learn how to cook meals, do laundry and conduct banking transactions.

    Students with intellectual disabilities can stay in public school until age 21. Traditionally, they have then been sent to costly programs outside the community after their senior year.

    "I feel these are our students, and we need to own them," Toole said. "Before, they weren't in their community and they were not necessarily getting a job."

    She reached out to local businesses and organizations where her students had been involved in past work study programs. While some were scared and declined to participate, Toole said, others did so eagerly.

    Peter Morris, the administrator of The Cottage and Avalon Health Center, the memory care and skilled nursing components of StoneRidge, was one of the first to get on board when the program began in September.

    He said StoneRidge's parent company is involved with similar programs in their other locations around the country and sees it as part of being a good neighbor.

    He said the residents had enjoyed Toole's students who had done volunteer work at StoneRidge in the past, and he wanted to make the collaboration more of a formal program.

    "But we don't look at this in some sort of benevolent way," he said. "These students more than make up for any disability they have with their drive and desire to work. They are phenomenal workers."

    Morris said he hopes other businesses and organizations in town will see the benefit of being involved in the program.

    The students are considered to be part of the StoneRidge family by both employees and residents. That's apparent as the students are welcomed warmly by just about everyone as they make their way through the facility.

    Slowly introducing change

    The partnership has worked out particularly well because, Toole said, the students are uniquely suited to working with the residents dealing with Alzheimer's.

    "My students have incredible patience. They understand waiting, and they think the residents are perfect. They don't understand they have memory loss," she said. "They also don't worry about the past or the future. They're just happy in the moment. So there's a lot of joy in that room."

    Toole said her students have been particularly effective in recreational activities.

    "They really are making a difference in these people's lives," she said.

    Toole said she and job coaches Lorraine Szewc and Pat Derouin challenge and push Homand and the other students each day.

    For people with autism, any deviation from what they are used to can be extremely upsetting. But in the working world, adaptation to change is necessary. The program slowly introduces change to Homand so he can develop that skill.

    "We give them a safe environment to fail and we're seeing them grow," Toole said. "They teach me every day what their potential is. And they are just blossoming."

    Homand's parents agreed.

    "It's helped him become more sociable and flexible and opened him up as person," said Fran Homand, Tyler's mother.

    His father, Mark, a mechanical design supervisor at Electric Boat, said the program is helping his son gain the life and work skills he will need to make the transition after high school.

    "She's trying to make him as self-sufficient as possible and have as normal a life as possible," he said about Toole.

    The Homands said that after Tyler's junior year, Toole asked them if they wanted him to continue on an academic track or begin to transition into the workforce.

    "We told her, 'We know Tyler will never go to college, and that's OK. But let's give him the experience with different jobs so we know what suits him,' " Mark said.

    "Its hard to tell, though," added Fran. "Because he likes all his jobs."

    The Homands said their son is much more conversational with them and adapts much better to change and things that used to upset him.

    For example, he now asks to get a haircut, when it was not long ago that a trip to the barber would send him into a meltdown. He also competes in Special Olympics track and field events and is working on his Eagle Scout badge.

    "I can't say enough about her," Fran said about Toole. "She's always on top of things. I have her cell number, her work number and her home number. She says, 'Call me anytime.' She's very compassionate and she loves these kids."

    The Community Classroom program is also a financial benefit to the school system.

    It is estimated the school system will save $163,588 this year because it doesn't have to pay for tuition and transportation to out-of-town programs.

    Virginia Brown, the school system's director of special services, said the needs of the students can be better met with the staff and services here rather than in a program 45 minutes away by bus, where they are not being integrated into the community.

    She said the program has also caught the attention of other school districts and educational organizations who have asked her and Toole to speak about it.

    'I'm a little nervous'

    In addition to working three days a week at StoneRidge, Homand also works one day at Big Y or Westerly Hospital, one day at Mystic Aquarium and another at the Mystic Chamber of Commerce office at the train station. The latter is one of his favorites because he is a big railroad fan.

    But much of Homand's time is spent at StoneRidge. Here, he and his fellow students have a large classroom where they work on their skills before going off to their jobs.

    On one recent day they were learning what to do if they are sick and can't make it to work.

    "It's important to let us know so we can get someone to cover your work," said Szewc, the job coach.

    "It's all part of getting a job. You can't just not show up," added Toole. "Its important to call or email your supervisor and let them know. If you don't call for a few days in a row they may say you don't have a job anymore."

    Then it was off to the dining room to check the place settings and then to the laundry room to pick up a large basket of napkins.

    Back in the classroom Homand carefully folded each one so the edges lined up perfectly.

    Toole then began to show him how to fold each napkin into a bird shape.

    "Can you do this?" she asked Homand, who was smartly dressed in navy pants, black loafers and an argyle sweater covered by his light blue StoneRidge smock.

    "I'm a little nervous," Homand admitted.

    "I know it's something new," she told him as she demonstrated the tricky technique.

    "I don't think I can do it," he said.

    "Take a few breaths first," Toole told him.

    "OK, I can do it," he said. "Here! We! Go!," as he pulled out the edges into the shape of feathers.

    "You got it," Toole told him. "Look at you go."

    j.wojtas@theday.com

    TLC Program Coordinator Deidre Toole, left, helps Tyler Homand fold a napkin into the shape of a swan at StoneRidge retirement community in Mystic.

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