Learning to work
Members of the Learning to Work program remove overgrown blackberries from the Chintimini Wildlife Center. From right are Kevin Buster, Vinton Ayanful, Kevin Parker, and Thomas Blampied.

Program combines work experience and community service for special-needs youth

Glistening black and red berries hung tantalizingly from the tangled vines of a blackberry jungle bordering Chintimini Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, making it hard not to sneak a nibble or two. But the workers hacking down the blackberry vines were all business Thursday as they fought the vines with gloves and clippers.

The workers are all part of the Learning to Work Program through the Benton County Mental Health-Developmental Disabilities program and Bridges-Quest Enterprises. Each participant was a special-needs youth from the community, and the team combined work experience with community service as they traveled the county working on a variety of projects.

Program manager Cynthia Burgeson led the group through a whirl of different activities, all offering different types of work experience for her team.

"At some point, they'll all be seeking long-term competitive employment in the community," Burgeson said, and exposing the youths to different kinds of work offers them a chance to develop a variety of skills.

From helping seniors at Heart of the Valley to stocking shelves at Rite-Aid, the 10 crew members have been trying out new things and gaining confidence.

Burgeson said one of the participants was at first scared to even enter private rooms at Heart of the Valley, but eventually was spending his time visiting and enjoying the company of seniors at the care facility.

"They accepted so many new challenges this year with such a positive attitude," Burgeson said. "It has been the warmest experience. It's very neat."

The eight-week program also provides each worker with a stipend, and if they chose to work with the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, they'll be able to put a number of job skills on their resumes.

This year's participants included Phillip Rosumny, Amador Gonzales, Thomas Blampied, Kevin Parker, Daniel Johnson, Alicia Pattieshaw, Vinton Ayanful, Kevin Buster, Daniel McKay and Brandon Faulkner. Burgeson was assisted by Silas Henderson.

Pattieshaw wasn't immune to the charm of the berries, as she removed long vines and dangled the berries in front of her fellow workers. She said she enjoyed working on the crew, and had fun at every job site, although working outdoors provided some big adventures.

"I found a bird's nest, and I found a bird," she said.

Back by the berry patch, Kevin Buster was using his long clippers to smack down dead vines, occasionally shouting "Ow!" as a thorn came in contact with an exposed bit of flesh.

"I'm the leader of this group," he said proudly. "I'm a hard worker."

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