It’s nearly 10 a.m. on Wednesday — the beginning of sixth period on a “B” day at Hood River Valley High School — and junior Tony Holmes is no where near the school, much less in class. Instead, he’s in the shop at Hood River Ford poring over the engine of a mini-van with shop foreman Arthur Hess. Holmes wears his own mechanic’s coat with his name sewn on it and punches buttons on a hand-held computer hooked up to the car’s engine as Hess looks over his shoulder.
“He’s doing all the latest and greatest,” says Lorrie Gutierrez, service manager at Hood River Ford. “He’s doing stuff most people train for two years to be able to do.”
Holmes is working at Hood River Ford as part of the HRVHS Mentorship Program, which is designed to give students with learning disabilities a chance to gain job experience while earning school credit. The program is run like the Internship program, with students contacting the business where they want to work, having an interview and keeping detailed records of their work experience. But the program provides extra support and logistical help for those who need it.
“Many of these kids don’t have driver’s licenses,” says Leslie Melby, transition specialist at the high school and program coordinator. Their learning disabilities range from math and reading problems to language deficiencies. Often, they don’t have their licenses because they’ve had difficulty taking the written test required by the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The Mentorship Program provides bus transportation to and from job sites for the students in the program. There is also stricter supervision; Melby requires the students to call her, the business, and the school office if they’re going to miss work for any reason.
For many of the Mentorship students, the skills and experience they gain from the program are vital to their futures.
“They’re learning on-the-job skills,” Melby says. “They’re learning what it is to have a job.” That experience is invaluable, especially to the students who will graduate and go directly into the work force.
“For a lot of these kids, academics are just not the thing for them,” Melby says. The goal is to help them find something they enjoy that can turn into a career.
“I try to instill in the kids, what do you like that’s in your heart?” Melby says. “It’s finding their niche and then they can proceed with that.”
Crystal Dommer, a HRVHS senior, has found her niche. She’s been doing a Mentorship at Pam’s Path for Loving and Learning, a day care and pre-school in the Heights.
“I like it because I like being with the little kids,” she says. Dommer, who’s been at Pam’s Path since early fall, likes it so much she wants to open her own day care someday. And her mentor, Pam Munos, likes Crystal so much she’s offered her a summer job.
“We feel really lucky to have her,” Munos says. “It’s hard to find someone that kids respond to, and they really do with Crystal.” Munos is even paying for Dommer to take a CPR and first aid class this spring.
Junior Daniela Rojas also has found a niche working at the Dollar Tree. Manager and mentor Jay Lythgoe showed his appreciation for her help with displays, stocking and assisting customers by giving her a $25 gift certificate before the holidays.
“She takes instructions well and everybody enjoys her,” Lythgoe says. Other Mentorship students are working at Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital, Hood River Supply, Neilson Auto Body, Your Rental Center, Hood River Sand & Gravel, The Parlor and Mikey’s Mufflers.
“There are some great mentors out there,” Melby says.
As for Holmes, he’s definitely found his niche. Before he found his way into the Mentorship Program which connected him with Hood River Ford, he was in danger of dropping out of school, according to Melby. Now, his mentor and the mechanics at the shop like him and value his work so much they’ve offered him a summer job — and his growing expertise will go a long way to ensuring him a permanent position after high school.
“If he stays in it, he will be a Ford-certified mechanic by the time he graduates,” Gutierrez says. “Tony will do really good for himself. We’re proud of him.”
For more information about the Mentorship Program, or about participating as a Mentor business, contact Leslie Melby at 386-4500.