The students have a wide range of developmentally debilitating conditions such as Downs Syndrome, Cerebal Palsy, traumatic brain injury, autism and lower cognitive skills.
One thing is for certain, these students love Mrs. St. John. While telling stories about her students, St. John was nearly brought to tears on more than one occasion. She told the story of how she taught one of her students to clean and dust and use the Swiffer sweeper. "These kids love to have a task," St. John said. She showed her Down's student how to use the Swiffer then let him work on his own in the room. She said, " I turned around in a few minutes and he was swiffering the hall toward the office."
The Life Skills Center started as the result of a grant written about 10 years ago. The original grant funded a washer and dryer and refrigerator. Someone then donated a stove and a table and chairs was picked up at an auction. The first task for the center came from one of the coaches asking if they could do some laundry. St. John taught the students how to operate the washer and dryer as well as utilizing math skills in such things as measurements. This later grew into more laundry from other coaches and they learned about stain removal. Cooking was soon added to the laundry chores and this became a quick favorite of not only the students, but also the teachers.
St. John said they started cooking by making baked potatoes for the teachers. To incorporate directions into the learning process as well as making the student develop a sense of independence, they began to deliver the potatoes to the respective teachers on campus. St. John would send a message to the coach or teacher and tell them when the student was on the way and if they weren't back she could check on them by instant message without disturbing their independence.
The baked potatoes grew into the soup of the week during the winter months. St. John and Felts would ask the students what their favorite soup was and they would prepare it. By gathering ingredients, measuring and assisting with the preparation, these tasty delights were welcomed all over campus. As the holiday's neared, the teachers began to prepare the students for Thanksgiving.
St. John said last year they made 13 different kinds of pies. They learn their recipes and practice reciting them with the help of the teachers. They begin practicing their recipes in August. They learn everything from the ingredients and amounts to be included to oven temperatures and even about some less common ingredients. By Thanksgiving the kitchen was alive with students more than eager to make their own pies to take home for the holiday. All 13 students were happy to take home their creations.
As Christmas approached they began making candy, incorporating counting into the process of dividing the candy for each student to take home to their families.
In addition to learning to cook, clean and performing duties relevant to every day life, the teachers work with the students with such things as how to order from a real menu, shopping and banking, as well as use of a calculator. These are all things the students will need to know in their everyday lives.
As a special gift for her students, St. John and Felts have been working hard at making a recipe book for graduation gifts for those in ninth grade and up. The book will contain all recipes that have been used by the student, including the soups, pies and candies that have been made while they were in school at Cave City.
Their current project is Steak and Chicken Day. This annual event is held before graduation. The students will be helping prepare an outdoor grilled chicken or steak meal with baked potatoes, salad, Texas toast and a desert. This gives them the opportunity to learn how to cook on a grill as well as the experience of preparing a larger than normal amount of food. St. John said they already have 50 orders for this special day and the students are very excited about it.
She stressed the help that the department has received since its inception from the Cave City Extension Homemakers. She said each year Judy Breckenridge, club member, comes to see what the center needs for Christmas. Sometimes they buy mixers and pots and pans, but the students look forward to it each year and get to open the gifts.
It is very probable that the center will be seeing some very big changes as a result of the 2009 Economic Stimulus Package. Money is earmarked for the Title 1 program and Superintendent Green said that the Life Skills Center will be a likely candidate for some needed items and upgrades.
The impact these wonderful teachers make on their special students lives is remarkable. St. John had to hold back tears when telling of a day she arrived at school a little later than normal and a few of her students were already there, they ran to the door to hold the door open for her. This is a testament to not only the teacher's devotion, but the kindness and love these students have toward Mrs. St. John.
To these students, St. John said, The Life Skills Center is much more than a kitchen, it represents a large chance at some sort of normalcy in their lives when they graduate from high school and at some point move out on their own. Whether they live alone, married or assisted, the skills learned in the center are something they will carry with them for the remainder of their lives.