Clay Nelson, middle, stands in his cap and gown with St. Marys City Schools Special Education Director Doretta Nale, left, and St. Marys City Schools Superintendent Mary Riepenhoff, right. Nelson recently graduated from Memorial High School and completed Project Independence, which is a program for students with autism, that is coordinated by the Auglaize County Educational Service Center.
A local partnership between an educational center and a Wapakoneta business has lead to the ultimate accomplishment for a program designed for children with autism.
The Auglaize County Educational Service Center (ESC) provides a program, Project Independence, which is a transitional program designed for children with autism to give them the skills they need to live on their own after high school.
Project Independence student Clay Nelson, 18, of St. Marys, attended this program, which was held in Wapakoneta, and he recently graduated and was hired to work full-time at Wapakoneta business JMC Mechanical, a partner of Project Independence.
‚ÄúThis is a big success for us,‚ÄĚ ESC Autism Coordinator Kelly Schattschneider said. ‚ÄúWe feel good for putting together a program that really works.‚ÄĚ
The goal of Project Independence is to teach students with autism, who are at a high school-age level, the knowledge and vocational skills they need to live on their own and to learn the skills necessary to help them attain a job and work on their own after the com-
pletion of the program.
Nelson has Asperger‚Äôs syndrome, which is a high functioning form of autism. It is a developmental disorder that affects a person‚Äôs ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others.
Schattschneider said the program that she helped develop for children with autism in the county is going in it‚Äôs fifth year, and Nelson is the first student who has graduated from the program and found full-time employment.
‚ÄúThere is an 80 percent unemployment rate for kids with autism,‚ÄĚ Schattschneider said. ‚ÄúClay is the first person to leave the program and go into full time employment.‚ÄĚ
Project Independence finds local companies that are willing to work with the students in the program, beginning with letting the student work for them for a few hours a week with a job coach. In Nelson‚Äôs case, he completed the program and is now working full-time at JMC Mechanical, a business who opened their doors to the program and students.
While Nelson attended his daily classes, he also started working at the company a couple hours a week with a job coach, who served as a liaison between the program and JMC. At the end of February, Nelson became a part-time employee and as of June 7 became a full-time employee. His promotion came one day after he received his diploma.
Nelson‚Äôs teachers and family say they are proud of him for completing Project Independence and getting hired after graduation.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre really grateful to JMC because they said ‚Äėsure, bring him over,‚Äô‚ÄĚ Schattschneider said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs hard to find a business that will accept this population.‚ÄĚ
Schattschneider said that Nelson is a real hands-on, mechanically minded person, and working for JMC Mechanical is a good fit for him.
Nelson achieved the ultimate goal for the Project Independence program, which was to leave the program with employment after graduation.
‚ÄúJMC has accepted him and other students there,‚ÄĚ Schattschneider said. ‚ÄúThey embraced the kids. It‚Äôs hard to find employers that do that.‚ÄĚ
Project Independence also is partnered with the Wapakoneta Middle School and local churches, where Nelson‚Äôs peers had an opportunity to work at through the program.
Project Independence is looking for more businesses to partner with who are willing to work with the students.
Students with autism do not necessary lack the skills, but they may lack the social skills and may not relate to people, especially in a workplace setting.
‚ÄúTo have someone committed,‚ÄĚ Schattschneider said, ‚Äúis an example of what we can do as a community.‚ÄĚ
Nelson said that things at JMC Mechanical are going well and that it feels good to be graduated from school.
‚ÄúIt (Project Independence) was better than going to regular school,‚ÄĚ Nelson said. ‚ÄúIt was laid-back, and we weren‚Äôt set to a time limit.‚ÄĚ
Nelson‚Äôs job duties include welding and sheet metal assembly at JMC Mechanical, and he said it is ‚Äúkind of cool‚ÄĚ to be working in the real world atmosphere.
Nelson‚Äôs mother, Diana Nelson, said that this job is ideal for her son because he is very mechanical.
She said that Project Independence has been a lifesaver for the family, because he attempted junior high and high school, but ended up being home-schooled during his seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade years. He would practice math, reading and language in the morning with his mother, and then in the afternoon, he would help his father, who owns Tom‚Äôs Towing and Repair, where he learned vocational skills.
‚ÄúHis whole education has been a struggle,‚ÄĚ Diana Nelson said.
It had been a struggle up until he joined the Project Independence program to finish out his high school education. St. Marys City Schools Special Education Director Doretta Nale suggested this program for Clay.
‚ÄúDoretta did everything she could come up with,‚ÄĚ Diana Nelson said. ‚ÄúThis program was a perfect fit for him and his his education.‚ÄĚ
Diana Nelson said that her son‚Äôs academics were never a question, because he is very smart, but the school setting was a struggle. He had passed his Ohio Graduation Tests on his first attempt, and he was advanced proficient in math and science.
This program helped him get into a regular school setting, and complete his high school, while learning vocational skills he is taking with him into the workforce.
Nelson is a 2011 graduate of Memorial High School, and he chose not to walk, but he had a special ceremony with his teacher, intervention specialist of Project independence Cari Fisher, faculty members from St. Marys City Schools and Project Independence coordinators and family on June 6, where he was presented his diploma.
JMC Mechanical Shop Supervisor Kevin Ott said Nelson is doing well and it has been a positive experience for the company.
‚ÄúHe likes the work, and I‚Äôm glad we are able to do this,‚ÄĚ Ott said. ‚ÄúClay is an asset to the company.‚ÄĚ
JMC Mechanical President John McCormick said he recently became aware of Project Independence and was eager to help.
‚ÄúJim Walls spoke with Kelly (Schattschneider) and it just seemed like a neat thing,‚ÄĚ McCormick said.
As soon as McCormick heard the idea from Walls, who is a project supervisor at JMC Mechanical, he knew he would be interested in it.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a great program,‚ÄĚ McCormick said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a win-win all the way around. Kids benefit from it and so does the company.‚ÄĚ
McCormick said this has been an eye opening experience, and the partnership with the county ESC is working out great.
‚ÄúClay is doing great, he‚Äôs really taken to it,‚ÄĚ McCormick said. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs a lot of things kids can do, they just need a chance.‚ÄĚ
When JMC Mechanical partnered with Project Independence, it gave the students with autism who were interested in this type of field a chance to work in this career.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs an example of what the program can do,‚ÄĚ McCormick said.
McCormick noted that this program helps build a bridge through educational and life-skill training, and he applauds the ESC for that.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm proud to be apart of it,‚ÄĚ McCormick said, ‚Äúand we will continue to work with the program.‚ÄĚ
Nelson‚Äôs mother said his father and she are relieved and happy.
‚ÄúWe are so glad that JMC offered this opportunity to him, and it‚Äôs working out well,‚ÄĚ Diana Nelson said. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre just really thrilled for Clay. It‚Äôs exciting. His whole family is proud.
‚ÄúJohn (McCormick) cared enough to make it work, and it‚Äôs wonderful,‚ÄĚ she said, ‚Äúand he (Clay) likes getting a pay check.‚ÄĚ