Shawn Hale and Alfonso Canas, both 18, can't do a lot of things their peers at Westfield High can do. But they can hold down a job and do some pretty important work.
And their boss, Michael Denisar, was so pleased with their performance that he gave a $500 grant to the Best Buddies program at their school, Westfield High. As a result, 18 students and seven teachers were able to go in person to see a Washington Nationals baseball game.
"IT WAS a great experience and opportunity for the kids," said special-education teacher Katharine Zerkle. "No one's ever done this for us before, so it was flattering to get this grant. And it just made these kids feel really special."
Denisar's wife Sharon is Westfield's work awareness and transition teacher, working with students with mild to moderate disabilities. She had about 45 students this year in grades nine through 12.
The first half of the school year was devoted to classroom instruction, preparing these students for the work world. So she taught them resume writing, had them practice interviewing and honed their office and computer skills — anything job-related.
The second half of the school year was for their non-paid work experience, so Sharon Denisar found jobs for them. The worked for 15-20 different businesses. At the Westfields Marriott, some helped with security and one worked in the kitchen with a chef, learning how to season and cook meat.
Others worked at places including: Hair Cuttery, Hair Studio 54, Bowl America, Chantilly Auto Body, Wildflower Bakery and Potomac Inline Hockey. And some worked in the local elementary schools as teacher assistants or doing office or custodial jobs.
"Our community businesses have been so generous to our students," said Sharon. "They have accepted them unconditionally."
Chris Arnsperger, for instance, worked at the Fairfax County Government Center. "I did graphic design for the library administrator," he said. "I called it 'fun stuff.' I downloaded pictures from a special CD and put them on a disc. I liked it because I've done computer graphics at school for three years so I felt confident and experienced to do it there, too."
AS FOR Shawn and Alfonso, when Sharon Denisar considered job placements for them, she thought of her husband's company. "I spoke to him, and he opened some doors," she said. As a result, he said, "These two fine gentlemen work in my office twice a week."
Michael Denisar is president of Mid-Atlantic Construction Services, a Chantilly company specializing in commercial interiors. And both boys proved to be an invaluable help to him.
"We analyze blueprints and write how many of each item there are on that blueprint," explained Shawn. "For example, we count the number of doors and windows to determine the price of installing them."
"It's a fun job," he continued. "The hardest thing is making sure there are no mistakes or miscounting. My favorite part is adding up the prices of what [the items] cost to install."
As a general contractor, Denisar is working on several projects at once. "On an average week, we're pricing up six to eight jobs," he said. "So Alfonso and Shawn count things such as light fixtures, electrical outlets — anything shown on a plan. We show them what the symbol for each item is, and what color it is, and we put a number next to it so they can count them."
Then, said Denisar, these students will actually fill in the total numbers of each, particular item on a computer spreadsheet, multiply each number by the cost per unit and get the total. Afterward, he said, "They put a fee on the bottom of the sheet, and this is what's used to generate a bid on a project."
Often, the students will count as many as 13 or 14 different types of items on a project and, said Denisar, "That way, you can also hand out a piece of a bid, so it works out well. It saves on time so we can get more accomplished."
In addition, this experience gave them valuable training for the workplace after graduation. "I have an estimating department in the company, so they're learning an actual job," said Denisar. "And it's an industry that they could get into and do [as a career]."
And even if they choose not to, said Sharon, "The computer skills they're learning, and the social skills — greeting employers and colleagues — are huge in the workplace." Also important, said Michael Denisar, are "the responsibility and independence they get from being able to go there and do it."
HE SAID the students' totals are checked on the computer to see if there are any differences. "They were concerned about making mistakes," he said. "But I told them not to worry because that's why we always have someone check their work — and mine, too — because everyone makes mistakes. But it's pretty easy to check."
For Alfonso — who's unable to speak on his own, but who speaks via a device called a Dynabox — it was also a significant achievement. It got him to use his Dynabox to develop social skills, said Sharon. And like Shawn, she said, he also learned computer skills and got accustomed to being at work on time and knowing when to leave.
Through his Dynabox, Alfonso said, "I like finding objects on the blueprints. It makes me feel good when I've found them all."
An assistant accompanied both Shawn and Alfonso to their jobs — but not to help them perform their tasks — only to be available in case they had any problems getting on or off the school bus that took them there and back.
Delighted with their work, Michael Denisar gave a $500 grant to Westfield's Best Buddies program, which pairs students such as Alfonso and Shawn with other students who become their friends. This was Westfield's first year of the program, and speech clinician Linda Lee was the Best Buddies sponsor.
So when Lee received the grant, she asked Katharine Zerkle if she had any creative ideas about how to use this money. "We were trying to think of something fun," said Zerkle. "So we came up with a Washington Nationals game."
The Westfield contingent saw the Nats take on the Houston Astros in a day game and — making it even better — the home team won, 8-5. What's more, Shawn was chosen "Spectator of the Week" and received $25.
"A girl came up to my dad and me and gave me a certificate," he said. "And they showed his face on the Jumbotron," added Zerkle. "It felt good," said Shawn. "I spent the money that very day on a baseball and a DVD about the Washington Nationals."
Alfonso said he, too, enjoyed the ballgame. "He and Shawn had excellent seats close to the field because they had adaptive seats," said Zerkle. "The rest of us were up higher."
Chris Arnsperger was equally excited about going to a Major League game in person. "It was cool," he said. "I liked the baseball game because I never went to one before, and it's my senior year." So what was the best part? Answered Chris: "Seeing a homerun."