Morgan Kenske, 19, does labeling and stuffs envelopes on Oct. 27 at Caffe D’arté. Photo courtesy of Rick Priest

Morgan Kenske, 19, does labeling and stuffs envelopes on Oct. 27 at Caffe D’arté. Photo courtesy of Rick Priest

Federal Way Public Schools program helps students transition to workforce

At Caffe D’arté, coffee-roasting is serious business.

From its Federal Way operation, the Italian roaster ships its premium coffee all over the world. And it does so thanks to a turn-key team, which includes several students from Federal Way Public Schools’ Employment and Transition program that work twice a week.

John Virden, director of operations at Caffe D’arté, said he reached out to Federal Way Public Schools two years ago when he learned about the program. He was looking for tasks, like labeling bags and filing, to be completed.

“It’s been a good partnership,” he said. “It’s such a rewarding benefit to help students and give them opportunities to come to a work environment.”

Virden said he and his team truly value the contributions made by the students – they’re an integral part of the team.

“We absolutely love them coming here,” he said. “(To show our appreciation) we make them vanilla lattes and hot chocolate. Their supervisors always say it’s the students’ favorite place to come because we treat them so well.”

In June each year, when the program ends and students break for the summer, Virden and his staff visit the ETP building to give an informal thank you to the students for being part of the team and to tell them they look forward to seeing them again in September.

ETP was started by Federal Way Public Schools in 1993. It was one of the first programs of its kind in the region to focus on providing hard- and soft-skills job training to 18- to 21-year-old students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The primary mission of ETP is to help students successfully transition from high school into the workplace with valuable skills.

This year there are more than a dozen businesses or organizations providing unpaid internship volunteer sites, and there are between 35 and 45 students in the program each year. Students are in the program for three years. When students graduate, they exit with an official high school diploma.

ETP is located in the Norman Center, the former YMCA building. Students arrive each day and take time to socialize with their peers in guided conversations about work-related topics. Students then go to the various community partners and work a couple hours.

“They clock in and complete their tasks and have additional training if possible and return to the school and learn other life skills,” said Jessica Lex, transition teacher at ETP. “We have a kitchen there and laundry. A lot of it is hands-on learning.”

Most students are paired with a job coach to help maximize their potential for success in the workplace. Students are paired with job sites that match their skills. Students go to job sites Monday, Wednesday and Friday for their primary job, and Tuesday and Thursday for their secondary job.

“We do rotate job sites throughout the year to give students variety,” Lex said. “They’re able to express thanks to their job vendor that helps them find a job in the long-term.”

If a student is enjoying a job site, they can choose to stay longer instead of rotating out.

At Caffe D’arté, Virden said students learn how to alphabetize and collate files. “Some students love to file,” Virden said. “We’ll match them with a staff member. Another task is production. Coffee bags need to be labeled. We have to put UPCs on them and they have to go on a specific spot on the bag. This helps (students) be very focused and very detailed and pay attention to the task they’re doing.”

Still other students at Caffe D’arté are responsible for assembling boxes and filling them with product in advance of shipment.

Meanwhile, at Gymnastics Unlimited in Federal Way, lead gymnastics coach David Mackey enjoys providing a work opportunity for students. Each month, an average of 200 children cycle through Gymnastics Unlimited to compete in the sport, so Mackey said partnering with ETP was an extension of helping another group of students.

“The opportunity is great,” he said. “It’s a great feeling.”

Lex said the growth observed in the students from when they start in the program to when they exit is profound.

“Watching our students gain independence and be successful is incredible,” Lex said. “Some students start at ETP at 18 and they’re shy and nervous and not sure if they want a job, because they’re scared. Watching their skills grow and their personalities emerge is really exciting.”

Lex said students become invested in the job site. In turn, the job site becomes invested in the student.

“Next thing we know, they’re joking around with their employer,” Lex said. “That employer provides a letter of recommendation or acts as a reference for them to find a job.”

Businesses and organizations interested in partnering with ETP can call Lex at 253-945- 4174 or by email at jlex@fwps.org.

ETP worksite partners

• Complete

• Dumas Bay Retreat Centre

• Federal Way Public Schools Educational Service Center

• The Multi-Service Center

• Northwest Church

• Culinary Arts/Puget Sound Skills Center

• The Skacel Collection

• Secoma Lanes

• St. Luke’s Church

• Wal-Mart

• World Vision in Fife

• Gymnastics Unlimited

• Caffe D’arté

• Vince’s Italian Restaurant


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Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at thebrunells@msn.com.
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