By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Employment training assistant Kimber Wilkinson (center), who works with special education students in Ventura Unified School District, watches as student Dessiree Garcia (right) introduces herself for a job interview.
Dessiree Garcia walks into a supermarket with a résumé and a smile on her face. She asks for the manager, greets her with a handshake, and asks if there are any job openings. She is told that at the moment the store isn’t hiring, and is encouraged to check back in a few weeks. She remembers the advice of her employment training assistant Kimber Wilkinson: Be persistent and be patient.
You wouldn’t know it from looking at the poised 18-year-old, but Garcia has a learning disability. As a special education student in the Ventura Unified School District, Garcia has struggled both inside the classroom and in the outside world. She desperately needs money and a job.
Wilkinson, who has driven Garcia to the store and to several other potential employment sites, teaches Garcia the subtleties of job hunting en route. A member of the Ventura Classified Employees Association, Wilkinson’s goal is to help students like Garcia transition from the world of school to the world of work — and get their first paid job.
“I love these kids, and I love what I do,” says Wilkinson. “They know that they can trust me not to give up on them. And when I see them in their uniforms hard at work, there is no greater feeling in the world.”
Wilkinson drives Garcia to other stores where she’s already applied, to remind employers she’s still interested. Sometimes Wilkinson accompanies her inside the business establishment, and other times she waits in the car and lets Garcia go solo. She helped Garcia put a résumé together, assisted with online job applications, and conducted “mock interviews” so Garcia is ready to answer tough questions. Wilkinson also talked with Garcia about grooming, hygiene and how to exude an air of confidence.
“I’m a really shy person, and I’m trying to come out of my shell,” says Garcia. “Kimber has taught me a lot of things, like how to speak up. I am getting less nervous. I have never listened to anybody else the way I listen to Kimber. I know eventually I will find a job.”
The students Wilkinson works with have disabilities including autism, Asperger’s syndrome, mental retardation and emotional disturbance. Even in a good economy, it would be difficult for some of them to find employment. But despite these barriers, Wilkinson estimates she has found jobs for 60 students ages 16-22 over the past few years.
It doesn’t happen overnight. First Wilkinson “gets all her ducks in a row” to match students with the type of work and environment they will enjoy. She assesses their capabilities, evaluates parental involvement, and determines what transportation is available for the students to get to work.
Mostly, says Wilkinson, she is teaching her students the art of “self-advocacy,” or how to stand up for themselves in a world where they often face discrimination.
“We are always taught to not judge a book by its cover,” says Wilkinson. “Yet we do it every day and don’t realize it. Just because someone is a little different doesn’t mean they can’t be a great employee.”