Area special needs students find opportunities at TIEC

Published 4:59 pm Wednesday, October 4, 2017

MILL SPRING – J.J. Thompson started working as an apprentice dishwasher for the Legends Grill at the Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC) and was quickly promoted to fry cook.

While this may not seem unusual to most, it is a huge step toward his future. Thompson is one of the area’s “self contained students” which means the students may have intellectual or health challenges, be disabled or autistic.

“You show him [Thompson] one time and you never have to show him again,” said Legends Grill Chef Carl Shultz. “He does the jobs a lot of other guys don’t want to do.”

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Shultz added that Thompson was respectful, honest, engaged and focused. “It’s a blessing to have him on the team,” he said.

Thompson is just one of 15 students in the program this year. Program coordinator Denise Riske said the purpose of the program, which is titled Preparing Real Exceptional People (PREP), is to give the students job and life skills when they graduate high school. The program, which started last year, includes 13 Landrum High School students and three Polk County High School students.

Riske said the students apprentice, learn job skills for a year, then like Thomson, are often hired into paid positions. The jobs include everything from prepping food to rolling flatware. Riske said they even do things such as strip and wax tables, clean the golf carts and shuttle buses, and help with housekeeping.

While the students haven’t worked much with the horses, they did do some stall cleaning last year. Riske explained that safety was an issue and these horses are not specially trained for therapy. “Besides, most of the barns bring their own staff,” she added.

In addition to the physical skills they learn, Riske said the students practice “soft skills,” such as attendance, attitude, appearance, problem solving, work ethics, self-reliance and communication skills. Apparently the PREP students are succeeding because most of the regular employees working with them say they are dedicated, hard working and great to be around.

There are several teachers and faculty from the Spartanburg District One area involved in making the program work. Anywhere from two to six teachers are on site with the students to help supervise.

In addition to the teachers, workers and managers at TIEC have helped make the program successful as well. Landrum teacher Jeff Wilson is one who is frequently on the scene at TIEC to support the students. He said TIEC Campagna Italian Grille Manager Pat Gray has bent over backwards to help the program.

“He [Gray] really made a lot of this work,” Wilson said. He added that Riske was the major force behind the program. “These students are bridging their future because of her.”

Those involved in PREP see it expanding beyond TIEC in the future. Riske sad they hope students will be able to help with some of the construction at TIEC and other jobs in the community. Many students are already starting training in the ninth grade to learn the soft skills they will need for the PREP program and for jobs when they graduate.

Riske said it was great to see how far the students in the PREP program have come. “Its great to see their growth and maturity,” she said. “These students are not sitting in the classroom trying to conform. We’re finally giving them what they need. We’re meeting them where they are.”