You’re locked out of your apartment. Broccoli in the refrigerator has gone bad. The power goes out. What do you do? These are all situations young people encounter when they live on their own for the first time. Six students enrolled in the Milbank School District Transition Program are learning how to be prepared for these circumstances and dozens of others. The program is designed for 18-21 year-old students with disabilities. “The goal is to give them skills to live independently if they choose,” stated Keri Schliesman, elementary special education director for the district.
The program began in 2011 and remained housed at Koch Elementary until this year, when the district rented a one-bedroom apartment near Hartman’s Family Foods. The apartment helps to simulate real life experiences. It is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily and, depending on their schedules, the students are there from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“When the students first arrived, it was an empty apartment. So, their initial task was to get furniture and arrange and decorate it,” Sclhiesman said. “They had to measure the window, buy a curtain, and hang it up. Tyler (Johnson) got the giggles so bad because he kept hitting the wall with the hammer while putting up the rod.”
Renee Shelstad serves as the 18-21 education teacher. She is assisted by special education paraprofessional Carrie Novy. The students are Tyler Johnson, Eliza DiNatale, and Mariah Pillatzki. One additional student from Milbank is enrolled in the program along with two students from outside the district.
The students began preparations last year as high school seniors. They completed paperwork and classes and also learned to handle a checkbook, cooking and cleaning, and helped serve lunch and coffee at Koch School.
Now they are quickly discovering what it takes to live an independent life. To start the week, the roommates plan their menus and write a grocery list. Before they go shopping at Hartman’s for groceries, they look over sales fliers and coupons to make the best choices. “We like to try new foods,” the three chimed in. “We get new ideas from cookbooks and Pinterest.” But they have also learned to be flexible. “Because they only go grocery shopping one day a week, if they plan something and don’t have the ingredients to make it, they have to make something else instead,” Novy said. “And if they make too much of something, they save the leftovers.”
The students worked on budgeting which comes in handy when shopping for groceries. “That’s not fun,” Eliza said. “But we compare prices and buy whatever is the cheapest.” A major task they each learned was to cook. “Mariah is an aspiring chef, but the others had not done much cooking,” Shelstad said.
Mariah’s favorite dish to prepare is stir fry. She also makes salsa.
“I like homemade meals the best,” said Eliza, who is known for finding new recipes to try. “The chicken bacon ranch they made was awesome,” Shelstad said. They also occasionally prepare quick frozen meals such as pizza or macaroni and cheese, but vary their choices every week.
When they are done dining, each student is responsible for washing dishes. “We had an issue,” Eliza admitted. “We argued about who had to wash dishes and we disagreed.” “There were days when one student would make a big meal which required more dishes and then another student would make something simple which only needed one or two dishes. So to make it fair, they now do all their own dishes,” Novy explained.
Everyone who has a home has to maintain it and the group also has learned to tackle the cleaning and upkeep of their apartment. They follow a weekly chore list of vacuuming, sweeping, dusting, cleaning the bathroom, and taking out the garbage. “We rotate jobs because everyone was arguing about that, too,” Mariah said. “Mrs. Shelstad did a chore chart.” Each student also brings his or her laundry to the apartment one day a week to be washed. “We use the laundry room on the main floor of the apartment building,” Eliza said. “We put coins in the machine.”
When the students are not working on household chores, they have learning sessions. These sessions involve TV; computer and phone safety; creating a resume; time management skills; healthy habits, including exercise and food choices; and communication skills.
“Next month we will do a unit about citizenship,” Shelstad stated. “They will learn about the voting process, how to vote, and what the ballot issues are about. We will make sure they are all registered as voters.”
Each student is in the process of building a portfolio along with a one-page summary about themselves. Included in their portfolio is their resume, a list of their daily activities, photos, and their volunteer work and job information.
All of the students do volunteer work and some have paid jobs through the Voc Rehab program. “I like helping out the community the best,” Eliza said. “We help at the Thrift Store once a week and sort clothes and games and stuff.” The group made flower arrangements for Triple Dip Lodge and will make brownies for the Koch School Title Match Night coming up. “We are also looking for other ways to help out in the community,” said Shelstad.” “If you have an idea, please let me know.”
Eliza works at Park Place with the dietary program for her paid job. “I set out the silverware, set the tables, serve coffee, and put out desserts – pretty much anything the kitchen needs help with.”
Tyler works at Hardees preparing food. He also washes dishes and serves at Triple Dip Lodge. Each morning Mariah helps the Koch School librarian and after school she assists the Koch School secretary, Kelsey Peery, by shredding papers. “We are working on finding a paid job for Mariah,” Shelstad explained.
Getting to and from work is always a challenge and the students with paid jobs learned to arrange transportation and how to handle things if they are sick or unable to work. “We have to tell people,” Tyler said. “We use our cell phones.”
Eliza has a driver’s license and drives her car to work and the apartment, but Tyler and Mariah call the community bus. “We do not allow Eliza to drive during the day unless it is for work,” said Shelstad. “Otherwise, all the students use the community bus to get to and from work. When we have shorter distances to go, we walk as much as we can.”
They also visit Unity Square to incorporate regular exercise into their routines. Tyler and Mariah are involved with the school’s Special Olympics group and participate in bowling, track, and weight lifting competitions throughout the year. “They all have individual goals apart from their transition plan and IEP,” Shelstad stated. “So, even though they are all working on the same things, each has personal goals they are working on, too.”
Eliza attended a Youth Leadership Forum (YLF) in Aberdeen on the campus of Northern State University this past summer.
“I had to go through an application and interview process and then was selected for the program,” she said. Eliza and about 40 other students from around the state spent nearly a week in Aberdeen expanding their teamwork and leadership skills. “It was an awesome experience,” she said. Eliza is applying to be an assistant team leader for YLF for next year and Shelstad said she hopes additional students will be accepted to attend.
The students are eligible to remain with the Milbank Transition program until they are 21. “They are not required to stay, but we will work with them and their parents each year to decide what is best,” Shelstad said. Tyler hopes to go to college at South Dakota State University. Eliza thinks she will continue to work at Park Place, but wants to live on her own with a roommate. Mariah says she wants to move into her own apartment, but isn’t sure she can because of her disability. She also hopes to market her salsa.
Th group is similar to other close-knit families. “They’ve learned how to live together,” Shelstad said. “They have quirks and things that bother them, but they have learned from each other and become good roommates. Each has stepped up to the plate. They treat each other like family, work things out, and have a lot of fun. That is priceless.”
Photo: Keri Schliesman, Carrie Novy, Mariah Pillatzki, and Renee Shelstad. Front row, Eliza DiNatale and Tyler Johnson.