Retarded Youths Learn How to Work in CITY

Times Staff Writer

While still a junior at La Canada High School last year, Mark McElhaney began worrying about finding a job after graduation.

Mark, 18, who was left moderately retarded after brain surgery as an infant, had learned to read and write through special education classes. But he knew it would be tough for him to find a job. He had to be taught something new over and over again before catching on.

His father, Fred, says the family didn't want Mark to work in a sheltered workshop for the handicapped because he would be isolated from the rest of the community and relegated to menial tasks. But they knew of no alternative. There were a few vocational training programs in the Los Angeles area for adults, McElhaney says, but until Mark turned 21, he wasn't eligible.

"I honestly didn't have an answer," he said.

Then the McElhaneys heard about a job-training program offered by Oak Grove School, a special school for severely handicapped youngsters from the Glendale, Burbank and La Canada school districts. The Community Independent/Integration Training for Youth, usually called CITY, was the brainchild of Larry Naeve, a La Canada teacher who had Mark as a pupil in junior high special-education classes.

'Phenomenal' Result

Naeve brought Mark into the program early this year, and the result has been "phenomenal," Mark's father said. Mark, who has always loved cars, was hired last month through CITY as a paid mechanic trainee for Foothill Volkswagen in La Canada Flintridge. He is paid $3.50, slightly more than minimum wage, to assist in keeping the place clean and orderly.

For father and son, Mark's job is a source of pride. "It feels fabulous," Fred McElhaney said.

Mark, who will graduate from high school in June, is a bit more subdued, although he can't suppress a smile when talking about his job.

"It's very nice having this job," Mark says in the middle of a workday morning, wiping grease from his hand with a rag he pulled from his back pocket. "It's fun; it's what I like to do. It makes me feel independent--that I could handle a job."

That is the way the program is supposed to work, says Naeve, even though he acknowledges that not all of its participants, who now number 40 and range in age from 15 to 22, can work independently as Mark does. Their disabilities include mild to severe retardation, autism, cerebral palsy, Down's syndrome and other developmental problems. Some will always need close supervision.

Getting Into Community

The goal, however, remains the same: to get the students out of the isolation of the classroom and into the community, where Naeve is convinced that they can make a contribution and have some dignity--plus earn a paycheck.

"I believe after watching these kids they want to do something," not just collect public assistance for their disabilities, he said.

The CITY program is representative of a growing national trend in the past 10 to 15 years away from segregating the mentally handicapped in sheltered workshops or day-activity centers.

But, in spite of an increase in government funding, community-based programs are still few, contrasted with sheltered workshops. There is also resistance from some who believe it is unrealistic to think that the mentally disabled can get regular jobs, Naeve said.

"I was told by people, if I thought I was going to get anybody competitively employed, I was crazy," he recalled.

With the support of the La Canada Unified School District, Naeve persisted, and his "crazy" idea so far has resulted in full- or part-time jobs for five students, on-the-job training positions for another 15 and daily work in street cleaning crews for 20 others. Its $174,000 cost is paid for by the La Canada school district, the federal government and private industry. More than 25 La Canada Flintridge businesses participate with the help of CITY's seven-member staff of teachers and instructional aides.

"It's an excellent program, and more districts need to move in that direction," says Mary Falvey, a special-education instructor at California State University, Los Angeles. Falvey, whose students are often sent to study the CITY program while preparing to become special-education teachers, has included the La Canada program as a model in a textbook she has written on community-based instruction for the handicapped.

Falvey says that, although an increasing number of such programs is being launched by teachers at individual schools in the Los Angeles area, only three are large: CITY, one run by the Santa Monica-Malibu School District that also serves surrounding areas, and a cooperative for eight school districts in the Whittier area.

Business Cooperation

A chief component that has made the three programs successful, Falvey says, is the cooperation of businesses in those areas. "The La Canada community, as well as Whittier and Santa Monica, have been tremendously responsive in providing jobs," she said.

Berge Yeghiaian, owner of Berge's Sandwich Shop in La Canada Flintridge, says he was glad that Naeve asked him to hire some CITY youngsters.

"He came and asked if they could clean up. I told him to 'just tell me how much' the program would cost," Yeghiaian said. Naeve asked for $25 a month for nine students, but Yeghiaian insisted on making it $50.

At first, Yeghiaian said, he felt like he was taking advantage of the youngsters because the money he paid them was "a pittance." But now, he says, "I feel like I'm helping these kids out of the shell they were in. They were feeling useless. You could tell by the looks on their faces. . . .

Doing Good Job

"Now, when I come in in the morning, they tell me good morning, how are you, how's business even." He said the students do a good job of keeping the place clean.

Parents said they also noticed a change in their children. Alice Spence's son, Andy, works part time for Round Table Pizza, busing tables and helping to prepare food. At 20, Andy has the reading and writing skills of a first-grader and has a short attention span. Andy has been in the program two years and failed at a couple of jobs before getting the job at the restaurant.

"He is much more dependable, responsible and has really learned to talk to people," Andy's mother says of his experience at Round Table. She said her worries about his future have subsided considerably. "I see him as already having found his profession somehow, somewhere in the food industry," she says. "I think he could work up into a cook."

Ride Bus to Work

All of the students, including some who had never even crossed a street before by themselves, learn to ride the bus to work, which they do everyday, in groups or alone. They must carry a California identification card, at least $1 in change, and phone numbers for emergencies. They must also wear digital watches so they will know when it is time to catch a bus or start and stop work. Regular watches, Naeve says, "are like Greek to them."

The street cleaning crews, like the group that launched the program with brooms and dustpans at Berge's Sandwich Shop, serve as the training ground to acquire basic job skills: getting to work on time, proper grooming, following orders, finishing a task and getting along with fellow workers.

From the cleaning crews the students can progress to custodial, clerking and maintenance jobs in such diverse places as restaurants, Crescenta-Canada YMCA, La Canada Public Library, Oak Grove Nursery in La Canada, La Canada Presbyterian Church and the U.S. Forest Service station in Oak Grove Park. One student with Down's syndrome landed a job with the state Department of Transportation and spends his days with an outdoor Caltrans freeway cleaning crew.

All of the students earn some money for their labors. Some, like Mark and Andy, are paid at least the minimum wage by private employers. Others are paid through the federally funded Job Training Program Act. Those who work on the street cleaning crews get paid $2 a week as an incentive.

There are students, Naeve says, who start out with no concept of what the days of the week are. But, after working for a while, "they come to me and say 'Larry, it's Friday. Where's our money?"

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