Eastern Suffolk BOCES helping special needs students explore career paths

Upon entering a classroom at the Harry B. Ward Technical Center in Riverhead Monday morning, a visitor was greeted by a room full of smiling faces. Perhaps not what one would expect of students in school during the summer.

Not only that, but these students were there voluntarily.

Behind those smiles might have been the knowledge that they were doing something for their futures, and that, surely, was something to smile about.

Special needs students ages 14 to 21 have been exploring career possibilities as part of a two-week Eastern Suffolk BOCES program that concludes today. Twenty-six students have been taking part in the summer career exploration program at Eastern Suffolk BOCES’ two campuses (the other is in Bellport), said Erin Sellek, the program’s assistant administrator. This is the first year of the program, free to students and funded by a five-year grant at $300,000 per year from the New York State Education Department’s Acces-VR program, she said. Acces-VR assists people with disabilities in achieving and maintaining employment and enjoying independent living.

The students have been learning about career opportunities in the animal science, culinary arts, health and automotive fields, as well as gaining workplace readiness skills.

“I think it’s been going great,” Ms. Sellek said. “The teachers seem to have a good time. The culinary teacher last week, they were cooking in the kitchen. They got to taste what they were making. They’re exploring different careers. They got to do an oil change and change a tire [in] automotive and some of them have said that, you know, they’re finding out what they don’t like, but they’re also finding out what they do like. It’s all about helping them find a career path.”

Asked about the value of a program such as this, Christine Themann, a career exploration instructor who has worked with special education students in the Patchogue-Medford School District, said: “I think this is great for anybody, not just the population that we have. You know this is the special ed population that we have. I think there’s a lot of kids that I’ve spoken to in the high school in my district who, like I said, ‘I’m just taking over my dad’s shop.’ Yeah, well, that’s great, but if you don’t know how to run a business, you know, you’re going to fail because somebody’s gonna steal from you, or you may be a great mechanic and maybe that’s what your dad showed you, but you need to know the other end of it, so you should at least take a couple of classes. So some of those kids get it.”

Collin McDaniel, 16, of Greenport is interested in becoming a landscaper. “I think I’m learning a lot,” he said. He added, “I thought it was going to be really boring, but I was wrong.”

Hannah Murphy, 20, of Mattituck works at the Splish Splash water park in Calverton. But she also has an interest in cooking and has been drawn to the program’s culinary arts offerings. “This program is great, and you learn a lot,” she said.

Kelly Robrecht, an animal science instructor (and a licensed veterinary technician), is a perfect example of the sort of impact such a program can have on students. It was as a BOCES student herself that her eyes were opened to animal science. “If I never went to BOCES, I would never be on the path that I am,” she said.

How important is this program?

“It can change lives, and it can really have an impact,” Ms. Robrecht said. “You know, the students here, some of them know what they want to do with their lives. Some of them don’t know and it’s fine if they don’t know, but this could give them a different perspective on what they may be able to pursue in the future.”

Said Ms. Themann, “I always tell people if you just get one, one person out of the program that is successful with it, then the program is a success.”