Special Needs Students Welcomed in Ambler

by 
Karen Plourde, Editor, Weavers Way Shuttle, and Susan Ciccantelli
Photo by Susan Ciccantelli
Wissahickon High post-senior Stefan (left), Job Coach Rosemary Doberstein, and senior Jake. Both students work in the Ambler store three days a week.

Finding a comfortable spot beyond your own four walls can be especially difficult for those with special needs. Staff and management at Weavers Way wanted the Ambler store to be a good fit for shoppers and employees of different abilities, in much the same way as the Northwest Philly locations have been. As part of that effort, the Co-op’s Development Manager, Kathleen Casey, approached the Wissahickon School District last spring about reaching out to families with children on the autism spectrum who might want to participate in regular inclusive shopping nights at the store.

“We held a couple of meetings with Dr. Kelle Heim-McCloskey, director of student services, and instructors of special needs students,” Casey said via email. “Out of those meetings, we broadened the partnership to include work study opportunities, field trips and more.”

Starting last fall, the store took on two Wissahickon High School students for the work study program three days a week for two-hour shifts. A month later, the twice-a-month inclusive shopping nights debuted.

In its current form, the Ambler inclusive nights, which take place on Wednesdays, feature special signage and no PA system or music. Staff keep on the lookout for shoppers who may need special directions or information.

Rosemary Doberstein, job coach for Jake, a senior at Wissahickon High, and Stefan, a post-senior, said the work-study program is designed to help special needs students from the district who are 21 or younger learn skills that can lead to jobs once they’ve completed the program.

“We work on lots of different things,” she said. “Advocacy is one of them — getting them to ask questions . . . we’re trying to get them to start thinking a little bit further down . . . what questions do you need to ask before you can do the job?”

Casey is especially happy that the program includes students who live in Ambler. “We are part of their community; some of the students can walk to the store,” she said. “The more familiar we are with these individual students, the better we can serve them.”

“Our staff have also proven to be real collaborators, and have welcomed the students, school staff and families with enthusiasm,” she added. “So having all the pieces come together relatively easily shows how we’re built.”

For their part, Jake and Stefan enjoy their shifts at the Co-op. “I love it,” said Jake as he restocked onions in produce one Friday afternoon. “It feels natural here; it feels like I’m home.”