County opens home skills facility

From left, Vincent Middle High School student Bridget Hunt, Montevallo High School student Timmy Martin, Pelham High School teacher Lacey Jordan and PHS student Josh Graham cut the ribbon at The Growing Place in Pelham Oct. 24. (Reporter Photo/Neal Wagner)

By NEAL WAGNER / City Editor

When Susan Vicens asked her son, Koa, to complete a few household chores a few weeks ago, she was met with the same response many parents of teenagers face.

“I got the typical teenager response. He huffed and said ‘I’m not doing that,’” Vicens said at the ribbon-cutting event for the Shelby County Special Services Center’s The Growing Place Oct. 24. “But the first time he came here, he talked about everything he had done for 45 minutes when he got home.”

Koa Vicens, who has Down syndrome, is one of dozens of high school students with disabilities who have been strengthening their independent living skills at The Growing Place over the past few weeks.

The Growing Place, which is on the campus of the Linda Nolen Learning Center in Pelham, is a portable classroom containing everything from a working kitchen to a home office and a bedroom. The facility also features a large greenhouse, which is set to start holding classes over the next few weeks, said Shelby County Schools Program Specialist Dr. Susan Wiley.

Every week, special-needs students from every Shelby County high school and the LNLC are transported to The Growing Center, where they learn skills such as cooking, making a bed and other tasks necessary for independent living.

“This allows them to do things in a natural environment. You aren’t going to make up a bed in a classroom, for instance,” Wiley said. “This is a world of opportunity for the kids to learn these skills before they go out into the real world.

“As they do these things, they start to say ‘Wow, look at what I can do,’” Wiley added.

The facility was funded with the help of federal stimulus money, and was set up with input from the students who will use it. Over the past three weeks, students have been working to identify which materials should be stocked in the building, and have organized the supplies in the facility to maximize efficiency.

Classes at The Growing Place will also cover life skills such as purchasing groceries, budgeting and cooking.

Once the greenhouse is opened, teachers will use it to teach students about basic ground-keeping skills they can use for independent living or in a future job.

“Our dream for The Growing Place is for students to have a place where they are comfortable in learning skills that will enable them to become productive adults,” said Special Education Coordinator Marla Aldrich. “Additionally, we would like for the greenhouse to become a self-supporting nursery and gift shop providing sustained employment to several students and/or graduates of Shelby County.”

For the Vicens family, The Growing Place has already had an impact in their home.

“Now he is excited to do those things around the house every day,” Vicens said. “It’s been a dream come true. That’s what this place is all about.”