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Simple things teach life lessons

By Sarah L. Smith
Coastal Observer

It was an ordinary day for Mary Tester’s class.

They picked out a pumpkin, did a little cleaning, ate lunch and shopped. The life skills field trips are a twice-a-week event for the Waccamaw High School special education class.

“We go out and clean in the community,” Tester said. “We also go out for lunch, and that teaches social skills.”

Restaurants donate lunch. Students tip, and if the restaurant allows, they bus their tables. The class raises tips from bake sales at the school, Tester said. Any money left over gets spent on Operation Christmas Child.

Last week, students visited the pumpkin patch at St. Paul’s Waccamaw United Methodist Church, cleaned at Teach My People, went to the bank, ate at Pastaria 811 in the Litchfield Exchange and bought small items in the Dollar Store.

At St. Paul, students sang songs like “Old McPumpkin Had a Farm,” watched pre-schoolers play games and saw a play about a giant pumpkin a family couldn’t get out of a pumpkin patch.

When the play ended, the students went outside to the pumpkin patch, posed for a picture and boarded the bus to go clean at Teach My People.

Laura Hughes marched in first. She was in charge of the vacuum, she said.

Katherine Hartzler grabbed Lysol wipes and disinfected desks and countertops in between checking out what others were doing.

Within 10 minutes of the group’s arrival, the smell of ammonia and the high whine of the vacuum filled the air.

In the bathrooms, Larshaun Sessions took a roll of paper towels and rolled out about two yards. He wanted to make sure everything was dry.

Johnny Ford, director of Teach My People, cautioned him to roll it slowly. Then Ford rolled the towels back up and offered Sessions a few pieces. Spray the counters and wipe them down – faucets and everything – Ford told Sessions. So he sprayed the glass cleaner and rubbed the formica, porcelain and stainless steel until it shined.

Tester showed Raymond Keller how to disinfect and clean the water fountain before he wheeled off to find other jobs.

She assigned cleaning duties to other students, but, like Keller, not all of them were excited about the work. Catherine Dozier was one of the less enthusiastic cleaners, but she made dusting fun by keeping the neon blue feather duster in her mouth and pretended she was doing the tango.

“Some of them will never be cleaners, but we try to get them involved,” Tester said. “We teach them that everybody can give back.”

Coming to Teach My People or cleaning facilities other than their own classroom or home is a good way for students to learn how perform the same task in different settings, a skill they’ll need if they enter the workforce, Tester said. And a job or volunteer position is what she’d like to see students achieve.

“It’s for them, not to make a lot of money, but to have a purpose,” she said.

Eddy already has a part-time job rolling silverware at Eggs Up Grill. He works three days and goes to class Tuesdays and Thursdays.

On Tuesdays he uses a machine programmed to say phrases, called a Vantage, to cash his check at a local bank.

When Eddy walks out, Tester talks to bank employees after he leaves to see if he said please, thank you and waited his turn.

She knows not all of her students can work, but she’d like to find job or volunteer opportunities for those who can.

“I’m looking for more businesses in the community that would be open to it,” she said. “There’s a few of them who could have jobs.”

Whether students are on a job track or not, Tester is teaching them how to conduct themselves in public.

At a buffet lunch at Pastaria 811, students practiced ordering drinks and picking out their own food.

Although it’s what students do in the high school cafeteria, Tester said it’s good for them to know how to act in a restaurant.

When a waitress spilled water around Hartzler, Tester was impressed she handled it so well. Hartzler doesn’t like to get dirty, she said.

“That’s OK. My pants will dry,” Hartzler repeated as she tried to reassure herself and the waitress.

During the meal, the group said they loved the pizza and garlic knots, but for the most part were content to eat their food in silence. Some looked out the window where geese milled around a pond.

At the end of the day, Hartzler, with dry pants, was ready to do it again.

“It was fun,” she said.

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