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Several AAMP students attain food handlers licensing AAMP: Students learn variety of skills.

Byline: Millie Meyerholz Senior Reporter

For seven years, Erica Matthews has lifted the lives of young people with autism. The founder of Autism and Movement Project (AAMP) in Pana said that during that time, she has worked with 75 children through adult, ages 14 months to 32 years old. She assists in building their abilities.

The Jumpstart program she developed recently had a couple of new highs: Seven of 11 older students earned their food handler's licenses. All of the students, after much practice, put on an evening dinner with dessert and worked for tips at Oak Street Station's commercial kitchen/eatery. The 34 guests -- parents and friends of the community -- having the bonus of touring Pana History Museum, mostly adjacent north, with framed photos and more artifacts in the cafe.

"It went seamless," agreed Erica along with Mike Cross, owner and educator involved in the food class that eventually led to the June 22 event. In addition, "Parents saw their children in a different light, and got to meet each other. Parents were over the moon!" she concluded.

Describing the successful project, Erica said, "When I threw the program Jumpstart, it was because my junior high students were now becoming adults and my high school students were adults that were only given the option of Christian County Mental Health. During our program, we practice life skills, social skills, interviews, money management, and time management. We have volunteered at Kemmerer Village in (rural) Assumption and Tanlines in Pana.

"The Community Mission has allowed three of my students to come up one hour a day to hang shirts but I want more for my students than volunteer work. I want them to be as independent as possible and feel accomplished at the end of the day. It is very hard in our small town to find businesses that will hire our students. Many of our businesses financially cannot support more employees. Hiring an individual special-needs person can sometimes be intimidating. We plan to have job coaches along with some of our students that may need more one-on-one assistance. But, every single one of my students can do a job.

"Mr. Cross has allowed us to come over and practice skills. That blossomed into more of a hands-on learning experience between him and my students. He wanted to do more and more with them give them those experiences that they may not be given a chance to try out -- besides at home. Our goal is to show our community that our students are capable and willing to work."

Linking with businesses

The summer of 2018, AAMP Learning Center, Inc. of 11 S. Locust St. invited 32 area businesses to a presentation about the Jumpstart program. Only four business representatives showed up: Kemmerer Village (KV), Tanlines, Community Mission, and Mike Cross/Oak Street Station. All four sites would become participants.

At KV, students cleaned the horse barn, "and a lot go there for horse therapy," described Ms. Matthews. At Tanlines, owner Nisa Dykstra, showed the laundry process, and gave her charges the tasks of folding towels, sweeping, and making up tanning beds.

Cross said he had met Erica when she was an Oak Street Station customer twice a week when the restaurant was operating. "I knew what she was doing, he said about the AAMP programs, but not right away. When the station closed, I thought, Why let this stuff sit idle?" The concept for food service training was

thought, Why let this stuff sit idle?" The concept for food service training was turned into the real thing.

Erica's realization that the benefits to "any child" was absolute. Her programs already teaches life and job skills. Her students' abilities -- who come from Olney to Springfield and counties and towns between -- range from low-functioning to high-functioning, and behavioral issues.

Cross added, "I have seen the full high and low, I have seen them pull back together, so they are able to calm down and return to the task."

Sign language

Some autistic children do not speak and are therefore without verbal skills. It is a fact that sign language ability breaks that barrier. Erica took two sign language courses (one is advanced) from the Lincoln Land College center in Taylorville. She uses an iPad with pictures of play and work activities, and actual pictures -- all designed to make the students understand transitioning from task to reward. Some have trouble changing from one to another, and the pictures help drop their anxieties, it was explained.

Jumpstart at Oak Street

Matthews and another instructor, Amanda Taylor, prepared themselves for involvement in food services by taking the Illinois Food Handlers course, and resultant license achievement. In the same way, the seven students who later passed the course took their online tests. The 30-minute test involves watching videos and being asked questions.

First, the students studied at the AAMP studio, and Erica created study guides to prepare the students for testing. For herself and Amanda, she emphasized, "It was useful, having gone through that ourselves."

They studied and practiced for three months about busing tables, walking and carrying full trays at the studio then at the station. Once they felt comfortable with the how-tos, Mike talked Erica into having the dinner for parents (and a few others).

Then came the planning for the June 22 meal, as mentioned earlier. The full meal would involve not only cooking certain foods but making salads and a dessert, as well as serving them.

The homemade Italian dressing was created with herbs grown in the AAMP box garden on the studio premises. Dessert was brownies (an Oak Street Station specialty) with ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and cherry on top.

Other successes

Erica said that of four who have been involved in Jumpstart, which began three years ago, two of her former students are in college, one aiming for radio communication and another, computer programing. A third has graduated from culinary school.

She now has 15 older students enrolled in Jumpstart.

For more information about Jumpstart, Autism Movement Therapy (AMT), and other details, call 217-825-4605. See related story about AMT.
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Publication:Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Date:Jul 3, 2019
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