Young adults with disabilities lifted up by Eagle Wings in Marysville (slide show)

MARYSVILLE – Since the shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck almost four years ago, Kelsey Sheldon has not wanted to go to school.

Now she does.

She doesn’t call it school. She fears school. “It’s not a school,” mom Amy Sheldon said. It’s “like college.”

Kelsey and seven others are attending the new Marysville Tulalip Integrated Learning Center – a program of Eagle Wings disAbility Ministries. It opened in the Damascus Road Annex Sept. 6, and it celebrated with a ribbon cutting Tuesday. The pilot program is a post-secondary, community-based education center for adults with developmental disabilities.

Sheldon said she went to school with Kelsey every day after the shooting until she graduated from high school. But for the past year she has done nothing.

“She was depressed,” her mom admitted, adding she barely left her room.

But Sheldon has been part of a group that has been around for a few years now that has been looking at ways to help people with disabilities once they graduate from high school and then the age 18-21 transition program with the Marysville School District. That group has wanted to start something like the Integrated Learning Center, so when Kinder Smoots of Eagle Wings stepped up to help last summer, things fell into place quickly.

Kelsey didn’t want to come on the first day, so her mom said maybe she could just go for a few hours to try it and then maybe just a few days a week.

But now she “goes to bed early, wakes up early and wants to come every day,” her mom said.

Jim Strickland, who teaches special education in the MSD, said Eagle Wings helped a group that was passionately talking about a program to actually having a building for it in a few short months.

He said many parents over the years have told him that their kids enjoyed school and the transition time, but had nothing to do after that.

“In the school district transition program, students have one foot in school and one foot in the community. In the new adult learning center, students have both feet in the community,” he said.

Strickland said some students can find jobs or volunteer work after the 18-21 transition period. But some need to continue. They need routines where they can learn work and social skills. At the center, they will learn to navigate the community and build connections. “Piece together a life,” he said.

Like Sheldon and Strickland, Smoot has been part of Mayor Jon Nehring’s group that has been looking at how to help people with disabilities.

“Concerned citizens and parents who have seen their student fall off the grid,” Smoot said. The center will expand on the teaching of life and work skills the students learned earlier in school.

Already this year they are learning to ride public transportation. They also learned from a chef how to make grilled cheese sandwiches. Smoots received text messages from parents the following weekend that their kids also wanted to make them at home.

They also learned how to order and pay for tacos at a local restaurant.

“Some don’t understand the concept of money so we’re bringing it to their level,” Smoots said.

And they will be learning so much more. The center is developing partnerships in the community and is looking for more so students can learn work skills.

They will be working to develop skills making coffee and serving it.

They will learn janitorial skills by cleaning up the annex each Friday and getting it ready for church service over the weekend.

They will take a bus to Skyhaven Farm and learn about gardening and taking care of animals.

They also are connected with the Marysville YMCA, where they will take swimming and exercise classes, along with getting instruction on nutrition.

They get to go on fun field trips, too – like riding on a private yacht to Langley for pizza.

Smoot said word is getting out about the center, and she is getting calls from all over the area. “Every community could use one,” she said.

Eric Holmes is the one full-time director for the center. “A small student-teacher ratio leads to greater success,” Smoots said.

Holmes said he was a parent who wondered what he would do with his son, Jai, who is one of the students. He called Smoot and Eagle Wings a “godsend” because their network was already in place. “It was a perfect union,” he said.

Holmes said his goal as coordinator is to teach the students life skills so they can be “as independent in life as possible.”

“A big part of it is job skills,” he said, adding he hopes to involve volunteer job coaches at the school.

He wants to break the barriers between employers and workers with disabilities – “get the community comfortable,” he said.

Holmes said it doesn’t even have to be a paying job. It could be a volunteer opportunity. The key is for the students to have a schedule and be social.

Skyfarm will play a role. Produce grown there will be sold at the Marysville Farmers Market next summer, along with crafts like dreamcatchers they plan to make.

At 26, Tyler is probably the oldest person in the school. He is not new to being out in the community because he has been a volunteer at the NOAH no-kill animal shelter north of Arlington.

His mom, Mignonne Walstad, said for three years he’s also volunteered with the Tulalip Police Department. “That’s his passion,” she said, adding that they hope with additional skills learned at the center he someday could get a job there. He took criminal justice at Everett Community College for two years.

If that doesn’t pan out, his other passion is animals. He volunteers at the medical clinic at NOAH, caring for animals after surgery.

Walstad said Tyler is a peacekeeper and mentor for the other students. She said her son is timid so the center can help him with being social and making friends. She called the center a dream come true because it can help students learn to do things safely.

And, there is no state or federal funding. “It’s all community donations. People believe in our kids,” she said.

Smoots added donations can be made at any Coastal Community Bank.

At the ribbon cutting, Nehring said he started the committee three years ago because “kids didn’t have anywhere to go” after age 21.

“This is something beyond our wildest dreams,” he said.

Nehring added that he hopes the business community will learn to accept people with disabilities as employees.

“They have the heart and passion others don’t,” he said.

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