PEORIA HEIGHTS — Dan Callahan is in his 35th year operating Gregg Florist but is just in his first year with the SEAPCO program.
That's the Special Education Association of Peoria County's STEP program, to be exact, that seeks to provide employment experiences for area high school students with disabilities.
Callahan, the owner of the shop at 1015 E. War Memorial Drive, said he took his sister Patty Cobb's suggestion to participate in the program.
As a result, two days each week, the school bus drops off Adam West, a junior at Dunlap High School, at the flower shop where he fills buckets with water, sweeps up and, in general, helps out at a place that, just before Valentine's Day (Friday) is a beehive of activity.
"All leaves are cancelled at this time of year," said Callahan, noting that his store stays open late (until 7 p.m.) on Thursday and Friday to accommodate last-minute shoppers.
While Gregg's may be a busy place, there's room for West who's made Callahan a SEAPCO proponent. "We really do believe in the STEP (Secondary Transitional Experience Program) program and the chance for meaningful experiences for young adults though we have a special connection in Adam's case," he said.
Mary Bodell, a processing technician at Gregg's, works closely with West. "He's just a nice kid. He likes flowers and works hard. It's all part of a good experience — for him and us," she said.
Callahan credited Adam's parents and the program organizers, as well. "Adam knew what to do when he came to work. He had the right attitude. He could take directions," he said.
West's job coach with the STEP program is Margie Rolando, who meets Adam at the store to provide oversight and encouragement, said Callahan.
For Deborah Moore, SEAPCO's pre-vocational coordinator since 1997, the ongoing challenge is to pair special-needs students with area employers. "The main focus of the program is to provide job experience before they graduate," she said at the SEAPCO office at Bartonville Grade School.
Moore covers a wide territory, working to place junior and senior high school students from Bartonville, Elmwood, Farmington, Glasford, Chillicothe, Brimfield and Dunlap as well as Peoria. "District 150 has its own STEP program," she added.
While the program has grown over the years, expanding from 20 students when Moore started to between 60 and 70 now, getting that job experience for students remains a challenge, she said.
"Students work an average of 10 hours a week at a training wage of $4.25 an hour," said Moore, adding that salaries are paid by the state and the SEAPCO program.
"We also try to recruit employers to provide paid jobs for the kids. We try to get six employers a year. We didn't make that goal in 2013."
Page 2 of 2 - Providing awareness of the program — and its benefits — to area businesses is an everyday chore for Moore.
But she points to a list of employers involved with the SEAPCO program, adding there are plenty of success stories.
Apple's Bakery, 8412 N. Knoxville Ave., has participated in the program since 2006, said Charla Grundon, an employee at the bakery.
"It's absolutely worth it on an emotional level to watch young people progress. We had a young lady here last fall who was very shy but she blossomed unbelievably just being here, working around other people," Grundon said.
Taking part in STEP requires a commitment, she added. "It is a very large responsibility. You don't just turn them loose."
Reid Larson, the owner of Reid's Mobil service station in Edwards, is also an advocate of the STEP program. "I had one student for two years. Now I have a young man who comes in three days a week. He checks the air on tires, stocks soda and candy. He's been a great help," said Larson.
For more information on the STEP program, call Moore at 697-0880.