The story of a single person’s trials is more powerful and moving than a statistic about a hundred people.
A student with an intellectual disability saw his world open wide a couple of years ago because of a partnership between his school and Ellanor C. Lawrence Park (ECL). The experience gave the student confidence, skills and career goals. He was part of a group working with a teacher and Ken Garlem, ECL’s labor crew chief, and through the tasks that they tackled he gained confidence, work skills and social skills. A year later, the student worked with Garlem and his staff without a teacher on hand. In the third year, he went to another park and became an independent student intern. His journey continued until he became a lifetime volunteer for the Fairfax County Park Authority, feeling terrific about himself.
He is one of many.
This fall, Chantilly High School recognized Ellanor C. Lawrence Park for 25 years of partnership with the Fairfax County Public Schools Career and Transition Services program. For more than two decades, park staff has worked with students to teach stewardship of environmental and historical resources. Students receive hands-on experience maintaining the gardens or assisting with other projects at the park in Chantilly.
Park Naturalist Jim Dewing is shown here with student Berkley McKenzie at the September 28, 2017, recognition ceremony.
More than 200 students with disabilities have spent nearly 7,000 hours at the park enveloped in learning opportunities they would not have had without the partnership. Through their special education career classes, they get to be part of Work-based Learning, an education strategy that blends learning with doing. In Fairfax County Public Schools, there are opportunities through Work Awareness and Transition, a course for middle and high school students with disabilities that emphasizes personal awareness, career exploration and work expectations.
A student with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Emotional Disability worked in a small group with Garlem. He eventually landed a part-time, temporary summer job through the parks and then started his own lawn care business.
Through the park-school partnership over the past two decades, students have worked both individually and in small groups with multiple supervisors who ensure that the work opportunities not only vary for students based on their interests, needs and capabilities but also are built upon a variety of workplace skills. For several years, that supervisor at ECLP has been Ranger Jim.
Jim Dewing is a naturalist and interpreter at the park, and he has helped develop the curriculum for a Special Education Elective course entitled Landscape and Design. The course incorporates Work-based Learning as well as ECL’s park history, horticulture, landscape design and maintenance. Dewing, the course, and ECL have made positive impacts on student lives.
A student with autism who had a specific interest in lizards assisted in the ECL Visitor Center and helped with the park’s live reptile exhibit. Over time, he created a small business working with lizards and landed a part-time position with the Park Authority.
ECL staffers have supported people with disabilities such as mental illness, depression and anxiety. “The greatest thing in this is that the winners are truly the kids that Jim works with,” said Cindy Walsh, the Park Authority’s Acting Chief Operating Officer.
“Jim is working once again with students this fall and then transitioning them over to Allison (Hartley) for supervision this coming spring in support of our gardens at Walney,” said Park Manager John Shafer. Hartley is a Historian at ECLP.
Park opportunities often provide respite for students challenged by adversity. People who live close to green space have lower rates of depression and anxiety according to a study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. Research from the National Wildlife Federation indicates that students engaged in outdoor educational opportunities are less likely to drop out of school and achieve higher grades. ECL is the consistent and, for some students, the only green space that they encounter. Students who take advantage of the opportunities at the park reflect the results indicated in those studies.
“ECL continues to be a leader is so many diverse ways,” said Park Operations Director Todd Brown. “I truly thank Jim and the entire staff for building and sustaining these relationships. It is not easy, but worth it when you put the time and effort in it.”
Students from the program have parlayed skills developed from their Work-based Learning into paying jobs at Lowe’s, Betty’s Azalea Ranch, Home Depot and Giant.
“This relationship will continue and is a bright spot in the partnerships we maintain within our community,” said ECL Park Manager John Shafer. “Jim’s efforts with the group from Chantilly High School have been valuable for both organizations.”
This blog is based on material from the Park Authority, Ellanor C. Lawrence Park and the Career and Transition Services section of Chantilly High School, Chantilly, Virginia.