Building bridges for students with disabilities

Courtesy Photo Sarah Johnson shows off her medals won at the Special Olympics State Games with fan Willis Johnson. Sarah played for the Special K Ranch Rams Basketball Team.

Special Education teacher, Libby Johnson of Red Lodge High School believes in the importance of teaching students with disabilities ways to transition into adult life throughout high school and post-graduation. However, not only does her educational approach emphasize such a need, but she also encourages her students to pursue opportunities as part of their progression into the community and workplace. “Transitions are difficult in general, especially for a person who has health challenges, it can be daunting. So we’re trying to make it a seamless process as possible,” Mrs. Johnson said. To help students and parents gain a better understanding of available transition opportunities, she recently took six students and families to the annual Montana Youth in Transition Conference. From workshops about financial management, disability support services in college, self-advocacy, employment, and recreation/leisure, Mrs. Johnson said the conference, “helps kids look at the whole spectrum of transitioning.” Currently, two of her students are in their individual transition process. During the summer, Sarah Johnson started working at the Special K Ranch and continues to attend two times a week, while finishing up her Senior year at RLHS. According to their website, “Special K Ranch is a place where people who have developmental disabilities live, learn, and work with loving and caring advisers… These people are learning independent living and vocational skills through participation in daily personal, household, and ranch responsibilities. Vocationally, everyone is working on the ranch raising livestock, growing bedding plants and hot house tomatoes in the 36,000 square feet of greenhouse, and caring for trees and shrubs in the nursery.” Sarah has been helping maintain the garden and grounds and says her “favorite part is weeding.” As the youngest attendee, she also joined their Special Olympics basketball team and recently competed at the State Tournament. The experience has been so positive that she plans to become a permanent resident on the ranch after graduation. RLHS Senior, Molly Heinen began her transition by joining the cheerleading team this fall, winning the most inspirational trophy, and started a work-study program with the Café Regis. Experiencing both recreation and employment opportunities, Heinen is able to develop and apply life skills necessary towards her progression. Under the mentorship of Jana Lumbar of similar disabilities, Heinen spends two-days a week working at the café for 45 minutes. “The focus in the field of disability is towards full inclusion and how kids can be an active member in society. It’s not just about work, it’s also about what you are doing in your free time and looking at the whole picture,” Mrs. Johnson explained. Further, as a way to expose students to employment possibilities while developing relationship building skills with adults, Mrs. Johnson is also working with Future of Montana: Volunteer Corps to help place students in volunteer positions. Other activities available related to the transition process include: the youth mentoring group in partnership with LIFTT (Living Independently for Today and Tomorrow), which plans monthly activities with high school age youth and adults with disabilities in the community, and YES! Club (Youth Encouraging Self-Expression) in collaboration with Travis Burdick and Baleigh Harper from Power Up, Speak Out!, that organizes events that promote positive relationships. By encouraging students with disabilities to learn about transitioning programs and pursue opportunities within the community, the Special Education Department at Red Lodge has truly been a key factor in students’ transitioning process.