Arlington thrift shop gives special-needs kids real-world skills

ARLINGTON — It’s the simple things.

Folding a pair of pants and arranging the matching jacket on a hanger. Washing and drying a vase before finding a spot on the shelf. Choosing the right color of sticker to mark the price of a knickknack.

These are skills that can make a big difference in the life of a teen or young adult with special needs. Getting a handle on tasks that apply in a workplace is a bridge to independence as they prepare to leave the public school system.

The Arlington School District has partnered with two nonprofits, Quilceda Community Services and Sherwood Community Services, to get special education students out of the classroom and into a working thrift shop where they can practice real-world skills. It’s a chance to see what students are capable of in terms of future employment and to lay the foundation for a smooth transition from school to work.

Community Thrift is a second-hand store run out of a former dairy at 604 E. Gilman Ave. Items for sale are donated by individuals or by Foss Appraisal Service, a Seattle-based company that runs estate sales.

“People come in on Mondays because they know it’s estate sale pick-up day,” said Karen Harper, a volunteer with Quilceda Community Services. “The variety is amazing to me.”

Profits go to Quilceda and Sherwood community services to provide daily care and longterm resources like technology and medical support for people with disabilities.

The store recently added a bargain annex in a smaller building next to the main barn. That’s where Arlington students work for about three hours a day Monday through Thursday with the school district’s transition team.

The team includes coordinator Donna Peery and two job coaches, Alicia Mose and Carrie Wilson.

Carrie Wilson’s son, 21-year-old James Wilson, is a success story. She worked closely with the district to focus on functional, practical education for him and, as a result, his autism hasn’t stopped him from becoming mostly independent. He now works at Cascade Valley Hospital, catching the bus to and from work and making a living wage on his own.

Wilson remembers being told at one point that her son would always struggle socially, a barrier for holding down a job.

“But he does everything that you and I would do to communicate,” she said. “It’s all about choices and expectations.”

Arlington schools started focusing on job-centered education for special needs students last year and has partnerships with several other local businesses. “The community is really coming together and finding jobs for our kids to do,” Peery said. “It helps to have the right people on your team.”

The Community Thrift program is unique because it caters to students with limited abilities who would struggle in most of the other job training options.

“The students we have here are the kids who generally would be sitting in a classroom learning skills in isolation,” Peery said. “This is so much more valuable.”

There are about 12 students eligible for the program. No more than four or five can work at a time because of the tight space and need for supervision.

“We’re kind of at the ground level here,” Mose said. “But it’s all coming together.”

Val Tracy, 18, worked on hanging up clothes and pricing items during her first day at the thrift shop last week. She likes being out of the classroom, she said. She’s still getting used to things at the shop and hasn’t met too many new people yet.

Will Peseau, who’s looking forward to his 20th birthday later this month, picked out a vase to give to his grandpa while sorting through items at the bargain annex. He liked pricing the knickknacks and was excited to hear a phone message from his mom telling him “great job” halfway through the day.

Working in a retail setting like the bargain annex combines a lot of critical skills, Mose said. The tasks require coordination and physical control along with customer service and social skills. Students learn how to focus, follow directions and finish each job they start. They’re taught to greet each customer with a smile when they walk through the door.

Those smiles are infectious. That might be the most important skill of all.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

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