Vicki Ann Martini always knew special-needs students had the potential to be independent and part of society. All they needed was support.
A group of Martini's colleagues in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, where she was a job coach, had similar feelings, so they drafted a proposal for a program to help special-needs students after they complete four years of high school.
The group received a start-up grant from the State Council on Developmental Disabilities in 1998 and launched a pilot program with 10 students.
The four-year Seamless Transition Enrichment Program, or STEP, now has five classrooms with up to 65 participants, said Martini, the district's lead job transition specialist.
The goal is to provide developmentally disabled 18- to 21-year-olds with life skills and real-world work experiences.
The program is based at an old school site in Costa Mesa, where students learn skills such as how to use a washer and dryer, balance a checkbook and make grocery lists. They also are assigned jobs in the community to learn how to work in a professional setting with customers and co-workers. They are overseen by an onsite job transition coach or teacher.
Students receive a certificate at the end of the program.
"It takes a village to make it happen," Martini said. "We take so much for granted, but small things can be a huge accomplishment for them."
For an hour and a half two days a week, Mike Slevcove dedicates his time to wiping down chairs with a cloth and cleaning supplies at Baker Party Rentals in Costa Mesa.
The 19-year-old sometimes uses a "chair wash" machine provided by the store. Other times he helps package utensils for parties.
"Working is about being more independent," said Slevcove, who is in his first year in the program. "It's amazing. I feel like a different person — much older."
His mother, Christine, said the beauty of the program is that Mike, who has Down syndrome, is learning how to take initiative at work.
"He's very capable; I expect bigger tasks later," she said. "What's great is they have a support to keep them on task and on appropriate behavior."
STEP students are determined to get a job and be independent, Martini said. Some have received employment opportunities at job sites where they were placed during the program.
For Samuel Weber, 21, stocking medical supplies at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach is fun.
It's his last year in STEP before he graduates from the program in the spring. He plans to attend college and work part time.
Hoag is considered one of the more advanced work locations. At that point, a student should be able to adapt to change easily, be a self-starter and lead by example.
"There is nothing better than seeing their self-esteem blossom," said Charlene Hommerding, a special-education teacher who oversees students at Hoag. "It's the best job in the world, getting to be part of their world of independence."
For Patricia Weber, seeing her son, who is autistic, navigate city buses to commute to work was initially "terrifying."
Samuel's experience in STEP instilled a new level of confidence and independence, she said. He can go to a store and buy his own tennis shoes or join conversations without needing to rehearse, she said.
"He surprised me," she said. "I didn't give him enough credit for what he was capable of. But STEP didn't ever doubt what he was capable of doing."