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Next Steps program serves people with special needs

Danny Leffler gathers materials to decorate an ice cream cake in the Baskin Robbins ice cream shop on Wauwatosa Avenue on Nov. 14. Leffler is a former Wauwatosa East High School student and currently part of Next Steps.

Danny Leffler gathers materials to decorate an ice cream cake in the Baskin Robbins ice cream shop on Wauwatosa Avenue on Nov. 14. Leffler is a former Wauwatosa East High School student and currently part of Next Steps. Photo By Peter Zuzga

Nov. 20, 2013

Corey Peterx is a model employee at Harwood Place. In the two years he's worked at the senior-living community, he hasn't been late once or taken a single sick day.

He is one of 73 students who have gone through the Wauwatosa East High School program Next Steps since its inception more than 15 years ago. The program connects Wauwatosa students with special needs to local employers and provides a job coach to help teach them the job.

Peterx has autism.

The program holistically prepares students with disabilities who are 18 to 21 years old for an independent life outside high school. More than connecting students like Peterx with employers, the program teaches them how to use public transportation, advocate for themselves, cook their own food and complete other daily living tasks.

The program is a continuation of the in-school program Steps for H.I.R.E., which stands for Help Implement Real Employment. The Steps for H.I.R.E. program is single-purposed in that it provides only job support for juniors.

Once students graduate from high school, they are moved to the Next Steps program. Their next graduation is when they turn 21, when the students can no longer be assisted by the district. The district will then refer them to the State Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and the County Family Care System, which will either assist them with the job they started through the school or help them find a new job.

Learning the job

Peterx, who recently turned 21 and graduated from the program, will stay on at Harwood Place. He was assigned job coach Lindsay Little, who works with Employment Options LLC. She's helping him refine his personality by helping him to not talk to himself as much and with his manners.

Peterx's boss Ryan Ptacek, dining services manager for Harwood Place, laud's his performance as an employee.

"He's taken a lot of stress off of a lot of our other employees and can help out and do a lot of these tasks," he said. "This kid probably knows more than most people about cooking now."

The management at Harwood Place liked Peterx so much they created the position specifically for him. He works in the kitchen, cleaning, chopping and helping the cooks. When he isn't in the kitchen, he sets up the dining room and takes deliveries.

Peterx's favorite part of his job — he likes getting paid. He uses his checks to help fund his Lego hobby and one day hopes to work in a Lego store. Peterx has created a scale model of the Ruby House in Chicago and has his eyes on larger sets, such as the Sydney Opera House.

Beyond the job

The Next Steps program prepares students not only for a job but for independent life after high school. The program's coordinator, Chris Jackson, takes students to eat each day, helps them cook at an apartment co-leased by the Wauwatosa and West Allis school districts, shows them how to ride the bus and teaches them how to shop for groceries, among other things.

Since his graduation, Peterx has notably missed his fellow students. He asks Jackson where she'll be taking the students for lunch, if she'll take them bowling and if she'll say "hi" to other students in the class for him.

Another Next Steps student works at Baskin Robbins. His name is Danny Leffler, he has autism and he decorates ice cream cakes. He recently turned 21 and will be graduating from the program soon. Leffler is active in the YMCA, supported by the program, and loves drawing, singing and dancing.

Baskin Robbins manager Debbie Comacho said Leffler is another model employee. Because he depends on rides, he doesn't have the perfect attendance boasted by Peterx, but due to his artistic nature, he learns decoration quickly.

Comacho said he was a stickler for details and a swift learner.

Leffler draws the cakes freehand instead of tracing like most employees do. If there is a difference in the store, a new sign or offer, he'll be the first to notice. Leffler's prospects on being hired as soon as he graduates, according to Comacho, are high.

The important thing for Leffler and Peterx to know, Jackson said, is that they are no longer students. She has them say over and over that they are adults. "They're leaving the high school, that sheltered environment," she said.

The program has expanded over the years but Jackson would like to see more employer participation. There are 18 local businesses now taking part.

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