By Nicole Wells
If you walk the halls of Ward Church on a weekday during the school year, you might see a barista steaming milk for a latte at ReNu Coffee. You might see a campus services person taking care of the building or preschool teachers entering their classrooms. And any one of these people could also be a young adult student from the Livonia Transition Program at Ward Church.
These are special education students who have completed high school in area districts like Northville, Livonia, and Redford. They’ve had an opportunity to continue with post-secondary education through placement in a program like the Livonia Transition Program, LTP, run by the Livonia Public Schools.
Students in the LTP program spend half of their time in a classroom on the campus of Schoolcraft College learning interview, resume, and communication skills. They spend the second half of their day learning Universal Work Skills in a working environment like Cintas, Meijer, Cantoro Italian Market, Hampton Inn, or Granite City.
In the fall of 2019, Ward Church became a satellite partner with Livonia Transition Program. The LTP students have the opportunity to work in several different areas at the Ward campus, including:
- Ward Preschool
- ReNu Coffee
- WardKids events
- Custodial services
- Banquet assistance
- Office work
- Industrial dishwashing
Brian washes dishes at Ward Church.
A teacher can make lesson plans and design programs but for a program like this to work, you have to build great relationships. The relationships built with this program have had an immeasurable positive impact on everyone involved.
Terri Gogola, the teacher, led the way in developing relationships within the different areas of Ward to create a successful program. “The relationships that I was able to build at Ward were beyond what I imagined. We had a true and wonderful team with the students, Ward staff, parents, our paraprofessional, Sandy Freiburger, and myself.”
It would take dozens of pages to tell all of the stories from our experience with the LTP students and teachers but we’ve selected a few.
The Students are a Welcome Addition to the Staff at Ward
If you didn’t know the students were part of the LTP program, you’d think they were part of the Ward Church staff. That’s how well they work together. The parents agree that the people at Ward don’t just think of their kids as LTP students. They learn each student’s name and genuinely care about them.
Helping in the Office
Our Office Manager at Ward, Carol Jacoby, worked closely with Terri, Sandy, and the LTP students before the pandemic. “This program has opened our eyes and we’ve been blessed to have them here.” The students were great to work with and helped Carol with random office tasks like stuffing envelopes for mailers.
Baking in the Kitchen
The LTP students are the exclusive bakers for ReNu Coffee inside of Ward Church. They bake every day in the kitchen on site. They’re learning things like kitchen safety, measuring, refrigeration, and washing their hands properly. The teachers are ServSafe certified and happily told us they passed their recent Health Department inspection with flying colors. They’ve baked cookies, muffins, scones, and they’re experimenting with bagels.
Creating in ReNu Coffee Shop
There are two LTP students that work at ReNu. “They help us with almost every daily task,” said Aviana Castelluzzo, ReNu Manager. “They make syrups and tea, weigh coffee, and restock supplies as needed. They’ve been a delight to work with and we always appreciate their help. They’ve been especially popular since they started baking for us! Customers are always impressed when I tell them the pastries are handmade by the LTP team. The muffins are a crowd favorite!”
“We’re educators,” said Jennifer Szkrybalo, LTP teacher, “our job is to teach the skills. We want to help bridge that gap and help them with getting that job placement and sometimes they do.”
Terri shared an example of a student who did just that. “One of our students wanted to work in the preschool at Ward. She had several years of work experience at other preschools. We talked her into trying out a new experience at ReNu Coffee. They were getting ready to hire her just before they shut down due to the pandemic. She then moved to a great independent work site at Biggby Coffee and was hired there. Without that experience at ReNu, she never would have realized how much she loves to create coffee drinks.”
Working with Campus Services
Some of the LTP students work closely with the custodial staff and have lots of light custodial tasks they do like dust, vacuum, sanitize, and clean windows.
Sandy told us a story that illustrates the bond and connection that the students and staff developed. “There was one LTP student that’s no longer in the program at Ward. He found out one of the custodians was retiring. He kept checking with us to find out when the retirement party would be. He showed up to say goodbye to the retiree even though he’s no longer with Ward. The people at Ward know the students and take them under their wing. They’ve been great with them.”
Cecilia makes scones to sell in ReNu Coffee.
Allissa proudly shows off the baked goods she and her fellow classmates make for RēNū Coffee.
Matthew cleans tables at RēNū Coffee.
Dylan cleans chairs inside the Ward Preschool.
Interacting with Ward Preschool Kids
The LTP students that help with Ward Preschool are learning how to manage for safety, play with the preschool students, pass out snacks, and help with activity centers.
When a non-English speaking student enrolled in the preschool, Amy Werthman, the Ward Preschool Director, approached Terri to see if there was an LTP student available to work with this student.
“I did have a student for her,” Terri told us. “I put the Microsoft Translator App on one of our class iPads so that my student could communicate with this preschooler. It was so awesome that LTP acquired a Speech-Language Pathologist, Laura Williams, this year to help with communication during work jobs. Laura and our student worked together to start this relationship with the preschooler. Amy came down to our class that afternoon and gave me the biggest hug of appreciation for the whole experience. I was so proud of my student for jumping right in and working with this little guy, his teachers, and his classmates.”
Yushan works with a preschooler at the Ward Preschool.
Stories From LTP Parents
Dylan Brandt was among the first students at Ward LTP in 2019. Dylan’s mom, Eileen, said the program was a welcoming positive experience. “Anytime the kids were in the halls or working it was not unusual for a Ward staff person to come and talk with them or ask them questions or tell them, ‘It’s nice to see you. You’re doing a great job.’”
When Dylan came back to Ward his second year, he had the opportunity to instruct other students on how to sanitize. “That was such an amazing thing for me to see him in a leadership role. Terri and Sandy along with Ward Church were the ones that gave him that opportunity.”
With the skills and independence Dylan gained for two years at Ward LTP, he was able to get a job and is now working at Marshall’s.
Dylan proudly holds his Worker of the Week certificate.
Shannon McKee started with LTP at Ward in 2019. We had the opportunity to speak with Shannon’s mom, Mary. “Shannon loved the program. It was a good experience for her. The variety of things that she was able to do at Ward and the size of the campus contributed to her independence. It was so comforting for me to know that she was in this large place but it was safe.”
Shannon loved working with Ward Preschool for two years. And the preschool loved having her so much that when their school year ended in May, they invited her back to help with their two-week Summer Camp. Since they were still in school, Shannon was all for it.
This school year, Shannon is continuing her love for working with kids and was placed in a preschool with Livonia Public Schools. Mary told us she was grateful for the opportunity at Ward and said that all the hard work Terri and Sandy gave to the program was amazing.
Shannon dusts the shelves at Ward Church.
Cecilia Richard started her first year with Ward LTP in 2021. Her mom, Patty, told us, “It’s been fantastic so far. I was hoping to be placed at Ward because I felt like it had a faith element kind of woven into it by virtue of its location in the building. I’ve been really pleased with the program. She has a sense that she’s being active and yet it’s fun. She helps in the preschool as well as the baking curriculum so it’s some of her favorite things. It’s the perfect combination of education, feeling productive, and contributing.”
Cecilia helps with office work at Ward Preschool.
Ward LTP Adapted in Response to the Pandemic
Since the LTP partnership with Ward started during the 2019-2020 school year, they haven’t experienced a full school year without interruptions from the pandemic. Students, parents, and teachers all over the country experienced challenges after that first shut down in March 2020 and that was no different for the Livonia Transition Program. Terri teamed up with other LTP teachers to create online lessons for all the students. She even recorded cooking lessons from her home kitchen.
When they started the 2020-2021 school year virtually, the Ward Church administrators allowed Terri and Sandy to use one of their classrooms to teach their students remotely. Terri said they’d often pull up the class on their phones and walk the hallways just so the students could feel like they were there. They loved when a Ward Staff person would stop by and say hello to the class online.
Shannon makes Christmas cookies in the Ward Church kitchen.
As much as the students missed being there, the staff at Ward missed seeing them during remote learning. They engaged with the students and considered them part of the team.
With the ReNu Coffee shop closed for an extended time, Terri came up with another way for students to get baking experience. She created an online order form so Ward staff could order baked goods for their meetings and personal use, which they happily did.
It didn’t take long before they were busy again with baking orders. They also baked goods every week to thank the Forgotten Harvest volunteers at Ward.
Ward LTP Adapted in Response to the Pandemic
In the fall of 2021, Ward Church started its third year partnering with LTP for the 2021-2022 school year. ReNu opened back up. Preschool was in full swing. And Terri made the hardest decision of her career.
She chose to retire after 30 years of teaching so she could spend more time with her new grandchild. “When this pandemic gets under control, you can bet that this Grams will be hanging out with the rest of the grandma’s at the Playscape at Ward Church!”
Jennifer Szkrybalo is the new teacher at Ward LTP and will continue the program along with Sandy. She worked at Churchill High School with the same population. “Some of these students I had in high school so I’ve known them for ten years. It’s really cool because over time you see incredible differences from what they were like in 9th grade.”
The LTP families, teachers, the Ward Church staff, and the entire Ward Church community have benefited from having this program. Eileen pointed out, “That’s four wins. That doesn’t happen very often and that’s what makes this program so exceptional!”
Love Like Jesus
So next time you visit Ward Church on a weekday – whether you’re working remotely in ReNu, meeting someone for coffee, picking up your child from preschool, or taking your kids to the playscape – don’t forget to look around you. Remember that everyone has a story. If someone looks different from you or acts different, they still have the same need for human connection. Give a smile. Say hello. You never know how you’ll be blessed when you take the time to love like Jesus commanded, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”