Exceptional Academy builds skills, new homes

Two young men have been setting an example for their peers with disabilities.

By helping their neighbors in need, two young men have been developing important job skills and setting an example for their peers with disabilities.

Jonathan Shields and Jonathan Brady are students from Oak Harbor Public Schools Exceptional Academy, a program that connects high school graduates with exceptional needs to the workforce.

Currently, Shields and Brady are assisting Habitat for Humanity of Island County with the construction of two homes in Oak Harbor — a duplex on Ely Street for a family of three and a family of four, and a house for a family of four on Walker Avenue.

Scott Givens, who works as Habitat’s construction chief program officer, said Exceptional Academy has helped with construction since about 2021.

Interns start from simple tasks, later progressing to bigger tasks with tools like screw guns and nail guns, Givens said.

Shields and Brady work two days per week, two hours per shift. Sometimes they sweep or help clean the house from scrap wood and drywall, but they have also learned to build scaffolding and to nail tarp to protect the house’s wooden structure from weather damage.

As their job coach, Rebecca Wheeler teaches interns how to clearly communicate with their supervisors, a skill they will need at any workplace.

The internship is unpaid, but Wheeler said volunteering can teach interns to be part of their community without the monetary reward, which can give a sense of pride.

To Shields and Brady, this effort isn’t just about gaining construction skills, but it’s also about helping families experiencing housing insecurity.

Coming from a family that has experienced some financial struggles, Shields is more than happy to intern for a nonprofit and believes it’s something everyone should try in their lifetime.

“At the end of the day, yes, it may be hard and you know, it may be mentally draining, but you have to remember that you’re building housing for people that can’t afford it,” Shields said. “I really think that working for a nonprofit is a very beautiful thing.”

Brady, who is in his first year at Exceptional Academy, shared the same opinion.

Shields is in his second and last year at the academy. Because the program serves youth ages 18 to 21, he will graduate on his 21st birthday this year.

Through the academy, Shields also landed an internship at Habitat’s store in Freeland, at the Island County Historical Museum and a welding business, where he gained skills he hopes will help him secure a job in construction or the trades but also found a welcoming work environment where he could laugh and learn from his coworkers.

Once he graduates, not only will he leave with a competitive resume, but also lifelong relationships he built with his peers and job coaches, whom he got to know on a personal level.

These connections, he said, give people with disabilities the support they need to transfer into adult life — a task that many might find daunting.

On top of finding a job that fits their interests and needs, some disabled folks might need to start from the basics of being a grown-up, such as developing relationships with people.

Exceptional Academy, in fact, isn’t just about creating lengthy resumes, but also learning how to navigate adult life in general. Students might learn how to take the bus, how to place an order over the phone or get help in getting their driver’s license.

With the right help, people with disabilities can gain the skills and confidence to unlock their potential and flourish into skilled workers and independent adults.

Exceptional Academy Coordinators Susan Armstrong and Linda Schuldt said the academy’s ultimate goal is to make sure students live the lives they choose to lead.

The academy serves youth ages 18 to 21 who have attended Oak Harbor Public Schools and have an individual education plan — a document that describes what special education services a student receives. Because each student with disabilities is different, the program develops a plan tailored to that student’s unique needs.

Some students might take three years to graduate, or, like Shields, until their 21st birthday. Others might only need a year. Each school year starts and ends with the regular district school year and has two internship cycles, meaning that a third year student may graduate with six internships and six letters of recommendation.

Upon entering Exceptional Academy, students are asked about their skills and interests, and the program connects them to an internship that is as close as possible to what they want and need. Some have landed internships at plant nurseries, landscaping businesses, preschools and pet grooming businesses, both on the island and in cities as far away as Bellingham and Everett.

Armstrong and Schuldt have seen many students enter the program without knowing how to use a kitchen knife or an oven. But by the time they graduate, they said, students not only know how to fix themselves a snack but can prepare a whole meal for their families.

Independent living looks different for everyone. Many graduates end up living by themselves or share an apartment with roommates. Others might help more with chores and rely less on their family to move around town. Regardless of one’s path and goals, each student has successfully graduated the program.

According to Armstrong, the academy has the highest employment rate among other federally mandated transition programs in the state. In fact, every student that has graduated from the program left with a job or a college acceptance letter.

But despite these exceptional results, Armstrong and Schuldt find that many people who would benefit from the program are either unaware of its existence, or aren’t fully aware of what it has to offer.

For example, every month, each student has to plan at least one outing with their teachers and peers, which not only is a fun way to socialize, but also a great opportunity to learn how to manage a budget and how to make plans.

“If people knew how much fun we have every day, man, we’d be flooded,” Armstrong said. “We really enjoy our time with our students.”

Working in a district that has a population of special needs students that is larger than average, Armstrong and Schuldt invite community members with exceptionalities or exceptional children to learn more at ea.ohsd.net. However, they wouldn’t be the only ones to benefit from the program.

By participating in this inclusion effort, business owners and workers can meet people with different perspectives and grow as individuals.

“If you’re not inclusive, you’re missing out on the opportunity of meeting really cool people,” Armstrong said.

Photo by Luisa Loi