October is Disability Employment Awareness Month.

But for Crystal Castillo, a special education teacher at Copperas Cove High School, every day of the year is dedicated to preparing disabled students to find employment.

Castillo teaches work-based learning, which includes vocational training for students at 19 local businesses that support the program. The program’s objective is for students to learn skills necessary to find employment after graduation.

Students report to class every morning where topics like attitude, behavior and personal hygiene are discussed. Then the students ride a bus to the supporting businesses, where they work for the first two class periods. Some students may work longer or shorter periods based on their assignments.

Six job coaches rotate to the various job sites based on how much assistance and supervision the students need. Job coach Yuko Simpson said the work is challenging but rewarding.

“Most people don’t understand how capable (the disabled) are,” Simpson said. “So, they don’t expect much of them. Usually, if someone has low expectations of you, you don’t perform at your best. But (the disabled) can do a lot more when people understand them.”

The work-based learning program has been in place for more than two decades. Castillo has made changes to the program over the last two years and recruited more local companies to participate. Comfort Inn and Suites was recruited at the start of the school year in August.

“We chose to participate because I wanted to help the community. But I also wanted to see if the kids could do it,” said hotel manager Mike Patel. “Before, when I saw someone disabled, I assumed that they could not (work) ,but I now know through the training that they absolutely can do everything asked of them.”

Seven students currently work with the housekeeping and kitchen staff. The Cove Herald was unable to interview students in the program due to school policy.

Shay Finnell of Copperas Cove oversees the dining room and kitchen area.

“It is amazing how (the students) remember everything,” she said. “If I am ever gone, they tell my replacement where everything is. They try very hard and are very good workers.”

H-E-B Plus also participates in the program.

“We strongly believe that people matter,” said Tamra K. Jones, H-E-B senior public affairs specialist. “Everyone counts. As a company, we understand that the differences and similarities require different approaches.”

Patel said working with the program has increased his and his staff’s awareness of the capabilities of disabled people.

“I will not hesitate to hire a disabled employee in the future. I would do it without thinking twice.”

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