LONG BEACH — The lunchtime crowd was piling into the Long Beach Senior Center's coffee shop and busboy Sergio Garcia was busily sorting and inspecting the knives, forks and spoons.
Garcia, an eager man with a friendly smile, has been a pleasant addition to the senior center coffee shop staff, said Jeanne Rabune, his supervisor. "He's always on time and shows a lot of responsibility. I wish I could say that about everybody," she said.
Garcia, 18, who is mentally retarded, is a recent graduate of Long Beach Unified School District's Project Workability, which trains teen-agers and young adults with severe mental and physical disabilities for jobs and places them with local businesses.
About 250 people from 16 to 22 years old have completed the program since its founding three years ago, director Kathleen Elkins said, finding part-time work in restaurants, department stores and offices.
"Our highest goal is that when the students leave this program, they will be able to work for pay," Elkins said. "We want our students to be a part of mainstream society. For too long in education we have segregated the disabled, forgetting that the students need to learn to live in an integrated world.
"We want them to have the self-esteem that a job gives a person."
Students in the program first are trained in basic job etiquette, such as personal hygiene and conduct.
"For example, one thing some special-education students have to learn is to make eye contact," said Elizabeth Campbell, the district's vocational education counselor for special education. "People will not feel comfortable with them if they don't."
The students are then tested for physical and mental skills and what their interests are.
"We try to find a good match, for both the employer and the student," Campbell said. "I won't put somebody in a job unless it feels right inside. I want them to succeed."
When a job is found, the student is paired with a "job coach," who will be the student's trainer.
The coaches, who are teacher aides and Cal State Long Beach students, work at the job first, learning its ins and outs, before the student is brought in. The coach then gives on-the-job training to the student for two weeks to six months until the job is mastered. Throughout the training, both the student and the coach's wages are paid by the district through an annual state grant of $37,000.
"We break the job down into small tasks, which makes it easy for the student to understand," said Rhonda Hume, a Cal State Long Beach education student who has been a coach for two years. She has taught students who have worked as janitors, as a busboy and as a food preparer "in just about every fast-food place in town."
"The most important thing I do is not only the job, but I help these students develop their social skills so that they get along with their bosses and fellow employees," Hume said. "These are life skills we are teaching, and when a kid is a success, it really is satisfying."
After training, the coaches make weekly follow-up visits to the work sites, looking for potential problems and will retrain the students if any new tasks must be learned.
The seeds for Long Beach's program were planted several years ago when Elkins, who was working as a special-education school administrator, realized that many of the disabled students had not made any progress despite 14 or more years of schooling.
For the most part, Long Beach's special-education students spent most of their days in segregated workshops, learning little about the outside world.
"I got tired of writing hundreds of reports about 18- and 21-year-olds who had been in school since they were 3, who had worked with some of the finest special-education teachers around, and still all these kids could do was watch TV," Elkins said. "They were capable of doing that before they came to us. I realized that as a special-education teacher, I stood for nothing. I told myself that if I ever got into a position where I could make a difference, I would make sure the students would learn to do more than watch TV."
When Elkins was hired in 1987 to run Long Beach's special education program, she began contacting other school districts to learn if they had a job training program for the disabled and she stumbled across Workability, which was being used in several school districts statewide.
One of her first successes came with Juan Flores, now 22, a mentally retarded man with a speech impediment who found work as a busboy and maintenance worker at a Denny's restaurant. He has been working there two years.
"The job has made Juan feel good about himself," said Concepcion Flores, his mother. "I think my husband and I were overprotective of him. We knew what he was capable of doing, but we were afraid. But Juan has so much confidence now. It used to bother him when people would stare at him, but now he doesn't care because he is proud, and I am proud of him."