The Exceptional Academy, part of Oak Harbor Public Schools, and Whidbey Island businesses are making strides toward inclusion and diversity in the workplace.
The academy is a program for students aged 18 to 21 who have finished high school but need more assistance transitioning into adulthood. The students have intellectual, cognitive and physical challenges. Every student has two opportunities each year to work a six-month-long internship.
“It is something we definitely prioritize because getting our students job-ready takes some time and we want to make sure we do the best job possible,” said Susan Armstrong, Exceptional Academy coordinator.
She said that since employment is “lifelong” she wants to assure her students have the skills they need to succeed.
The academy partners with local businesses and organizations to set up internships for the students. The academy currently has over 40 community partners. Internships are based on student interest. For example, there are a couple of students this year who are interested in welding.
“We haven’t worked with a welder before, so we’re sourcing community members who weld,” Armstrong explained.
The academy provides job coaches who assist and provide training on how to complete tasks efficiently and troubleshoot problems.
“Depending on the students and their level of need, the job coach is there for them,” Armstrong said. “So that, I think, really makes a successful transition because our students are learning how to have jobs.”
The internship program provides a safety net for making mistakes and takes away the pressure of a paid position.
The internships don’t only take place in Oak Harbor. Students have done internships up and down the island and even in Everett. Students have done grounds work, operated vending machines, done laundry for The Haven shelter and built houses for Habitat for Humanity, along with working in Habitat’s retail store. Two former students are employed at the Elks Club doing janitorial work.
Armstrong said the internships often turn into permanent, paid positions.
“Once the community members see how amazing our students are and how capable they are, of course they want to hire them,” Armstrong said. “It’s just a natural progression.”
She said while students enjoy the program, they also tend to discover the struggles of adulthood.
“Being an adult is hard and learning all the skills it takes to do that successfully, that’s hard too,” she said.
Despite that frustration, Armstrong said it’s all worth it when students achieve something they never thought they could.
She said that Whidbey Island has been extremely accepting of inclusive employment, which is not the case for every community. She attributes this to the fact that the internship program has been around for about a decade.
“It’s a small community and word gets around,” she said.
Exceptional Academy student Trey McIntire has completed two internships at Habitat for Humanity. He worked in the retail store and assisted in building a house even though he had no previous experience in construction.
“It was a good experience,” he said. “They were very friendly.”
While he discovered that he didn’t want to go into construction, he still learned skills that would be helpful in other jobs.
Posh Puppies, a dog grooming pet salon in Oak Harbor, currently has three employees that started out there as interns.
“Our students, they have such great hearts, that working with animals is usually a really big want for many of them,” Armstrong said.
Laura Thompson owns Posh Puppies and has been involved in the program for about four or five years. Three Exceptional Academy graduates work at the dog salon; two of them have worked there for three years.
“I really just think Posh Puppies is the perfect place for Exceptional Academy kids,” Thompson said. “Every kid that we’ve had that has come through our program has had this extreme passion for animals. That’s why they pair them up with us. They come to us and they’re just so happy because they get to be around animals.”
Interns start out doing cleaning and basic maintenance to make sure that everything is disinfected, as well as bathing and drying the dogs.
Thompson said she would suggest to any business owner on the island to consider participating in the program.
“We’ve had great luck with it,” she said. “They’re helpful, respectful, willing to jump in. They turn out to be great employees after their internships.”