By Brenda Maguire
NEW BRITAIN — Jose Gonzalez, 18, plays defense on his high school football team. He’s looking forward to going to college after graduation and dreams of being a policeman or firefighter.
But it wasn’t always like that.
“I had my fair share of trouble,” Gonzalez said. “I really wanted to change my life.”
Luckily for Gonzalez, he was placed in the PACE/Emerging Vocations program by his teachers at New Britain High School.
“I’m working with others and it’s paying off,” he said. “I’m learning how to deal with people.”
The program teaches students who have behavioral issues or developmental disabilities vocational skills and work readiness by having them work in the community.
“We’ve had a variety of job sites actually hire our students after graduation,” said Margaret Ziolkowski, who runs the PACE program with Pat Ubysz.
Ziolkowski works with at-risk students and Ubysz counsels those who have learning disabilities or are autistic.
The program, which usually has about 60 students enrolled, is in its 12th year.
“Attendance improves and it builds self-esteem,” said Melissa Simard, who works with a pre-vocational class.
Teresa Russo, a job coach for the students, agreed. “You see these kids from the beginning of the year to the end of the year and it’s like, ‘Wow.’”
One of the job sites is the Aqua Turf Club in Plantsville. Chef Mike DeJohn has students do various tasks in the kitchen, including picking mushrooms and peeling carrots.
“They do a great job. They’re very attentive to their work,” DeJohn said. “Over the course of the year you can see how much more efficient they get.”
The goal is to teach students the correlation between earning a paycheck and the opportunities that can bring.
In the past, the students learned this by getting a $3-an-hour stipend for working six hours a week.
Teachers would take students out to teach them various life skills, such as going to a Chinese buffet to help students read a menu and place an order.
“A lot of our students have never been to a Chinese buffet before,” Ubysz said.
But this year, due to budget cuts, the money previously used for the stipend has been distributed for other uses in the school district.
Meanwhile, the cuts are affecting a related class called CLIMB, which is for students who have completed their high school requirements but still need to learn life skills. These students, who stay in the program until they are 21, meet with teacher Kara Clark two days a week at the New Britain YMCA and have one day out in the community.
With the help of the Aqua Turf Club, the vocational program will be throwing a dinner/dance fundraiser on Nov. 4 in an effort to offset the cuts. Tickets cost $45 and all proceeds will go to the program. There will also be a raffle at the event.
DJ Blast, a.k.a. Mike West, who works security at New Britain High School, will be donating his time by providing music at the event.
For more information on the PACE/Emerging Vocations program, the event at Aqua Turf, or to inquire about being a job site for the program, e-mail Simard at Simard@csdnb.org.