JDHS projects thrive with a little help from friends and strangers

With Web site funds, special education students work toward 'unlimited futures'

Posted: Tuesday, January 19, 2010

At Juneau-Douglas High School, special education teacher Vicki Nelson's students grow, care for and sell plants. They collect recycling three times a week from classrooms marked with a "recycling" triangle. They shred confidential documents. They learn to cook for themselves.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

And much of that is supported by generosity from people they don't even know.

A few years ago, with more ideas than funding, Nelson came across the Web site www.donorschoose.org, which describes itself as "an online charity connecting you to classrooms in need." Public school teachers from across the country post specific project ideas and requests for money, and donors can contribute as little as $1 to help make those project ideas a reality.

People from Juneau - and from as far away as Florida, Arizona, San Francisco and Chicago, as well as some anonymous donors - have contributed to the seven projects Nelson has posted so far. All of those projects, ranging from between $300 and $600, have been fully funded.

"As soon as I heard about it, I started submitting proposals," Nelson said. "This benefits teachers mostly because it doesn't have to come out of our pocket. I don't know a teacher that's not altruistic, in the sense that they don't give a lot of money to their classroom ... getting funding is constantly a concern. ... I know the district does the best it can, but I just think the generosity of people who can donate here really expands our classroom."

Nelson has written several small requests that focus on an area of need. For example, "Bloomin' Buddies," a program initially funded three years ago to give students experience in growing, caring for and selling plants, is raising money for the project to continue. "The Green Team Recyclers," requested funding for a cleaning car, time card rack, electric time recorder and recycling bags. "Kitchen Creations" needed money for cookware, a popcorn popper and food storage and prep items to teach students how to cook and care for themselves.

"Unlimited futures is the goal I have for the students I teach!" Nelson writes in one of the requests. "My classroom consists of 15 high school students who are challenged by life because of their low academic/physical ability levels, but who face the challenge without hesitation! ... Despite their "ability" level, my students all want to have a job and be as independent as they possibly can."

At least one of her students has taken a job using skills gained in programs funded through the Web site, Nelson said.

"It's one of my favorite jobs I do," said junior Annie Street, who teams up with senior Jacob Lewis to collect paper, newspaper and cardboard as part of the "Green Team Recyclers."

"It's fun. We go to the music room ... and we stop and listen after we recycle for a few minutes. That's our kind of reward if we have enough time."

They've also gotten very efficient. "We can bust this out in half an hour," she said.

Lewis, speaking in sign language through paraeducator Anita Evans, said he also likes the work. His favorite job is vacuuming, he said, because it goes fast and he likes seeing the progress.

Nelson and Lewis also work with the Department of Labor's Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, where they gain job experience, practice filling out time sheets, and - through the stipend they earn - learn about checks. They also volunteer to do custodial work at Resurrection Lutheran Church, and do shredding work.

Street said her "dream" is to be a veterinary assistant.

The problem, however, is that she can't take certain math classes. "They have to understand that I don't know all this stuff ... and that I'm learning to learn and all that, but they have to work with me," Street said.

"Even a paid experience like that is totally doable. Attainable," Nelson told her, adding that they're looking into job experiences that involve animal care.

And in the meantime, Street and Lewis walk the halls of JDHS with their recycling cart, clean churches, learn, gain experience - and prepare for life after school.

• Contact reporter Mary Catharine Martin at 523-2276 or maryc.martin@juneauempire.com.

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