Ryan Johnson has a backup plan.

The Killeen High School junior wants to join the U.S. armed forces. However, Johnson is a special needs student, and he knows he might not meet the standard requirements.

For now, Johnson is focusing on immersing himself in the community and providing support for people less fortunate than him.

Once a week, Johnson and about 10 classmates greet customers, stock the pantry and dust shelves at Operation Phantom Support, a nonprofit that provides food and clothes to military families.

“We like people to come here to feel better about themselves,” Johnson said. “Most people come here and find something they (need).”

Special needs students from Killeen, Ellison and Shoemaker high schools volunteer at various organizations through the Killeen Independent School District’s vocational program. They started coming to Operation Phantom Support in September after operations manager Linda Valentine reached out to the district.

“They get involved in whatever I can think of that will help them with counting, with eye-hand coordination, with working on their own and just following directions and being out with people,” Valentine said. “I try to change up what they do all the time so they have different experiences.”

Harriet Brewer, vocational coordinator for special education at Killeen High School, said the program creates post-secondary opportunities for students by teaching them skills and connecting them to their community.

“They have to learn how to utilize their disability to the best of their (ability),” she said. “By having programs like this, it allows them to tap into those skills so they’re also employed in the community (when they graduate).”

Special education students often rely on their parents after they graduate, Valentine said. “Once they leave high school, since they cannot hold a job without some assistance, a lot of these young people (in the special education department) end up just sitting in their houses because there’s nothing for them.” Instead of being isolated in a classroom, Valentine said the students look forward to volunteering. Johnson said he feels confident when he’s with customers in the store. “Being with my friends makes me feel happier than (being) alone,” he said.

While the nonprofit is currently run by volunteers, Valentine said once it gets more established in the community, she hopes to hire special needs adults.

“We want these students to have an opportunity to grow and to prosper and to have happiness and laughter,” she said. “That’s a very difficult undertaking for special needs kids. It takes them a long time to build relationships and they need consistency and they need to be able to trust the environment that they’re in.

“If we can provide that for them prior to graduation, then my hope is that they will use that as a jumping board to come back here.”

Contact Sarah Rafique at srafique@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7553. Follow her on Twitter at SarahRafique or "like" Sarah Rafique.

I'm the education reporter at the Killeen Daily Herald. Follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SarahRafique

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