Donna High School Teacher David Castillo cares deeply about his special needs students. He teaches a class that includes children with Down Syndrome, autism and other debilities. Despite the student’s disabilities, Castillo chooses to focus instead on their capabilities.

With that motto in mind, Castillo launched a program designed to expose his DHS diverse learners to a community atmosphere – particularly a real job setting – and hopefully get them employed one day. The program which is in its second year is part of DHS’ Career Explorations Class and it applies to students who are “aging out” between 18 and 21 years old. Castillo said the diverse learners are required to perform duties on campus first.

“We start off the program here on campus by assigning the students to clean tables and help with the ice chest at the cafeteria,” Castillo said. “We also have them working at the library and the gym folding towels for the athletic department.”

diverse-learners-3After they get adjusted to their responsibilities, the students are then transitioned into the community in a work environment, in particular the Walmart in Donna. Castillo said the local retail store has been very supportive in taking in the diverse learners. He’s grateful they agreed to participate in the program.

“They have been able to assist employees in different areas by doing custodial work and organizing groceries in the aisles and toys in the toy section,” Castillo said. “It’s something we hope that eventually the parents will support and allow their children to be placed at a job site whether it’s Walmart, McDonald’s or Whataburger if they are capable to do so. Not everyone will be able to transition but the skills they learn can be applied at home.”

Castillo said he started the program because he felt something like this was lacking in the Valley. “We would go up state, and outside of state and we would see all these programs going on but yet we didn’t have them down here,” Castillo said. “I think it’s important that we get our students integrated into the community and get them employed as well.”

Castillo said every week the students look forward to volunteering and working at the store. “The kids get excited when they go to Walmart,” Castillo said. “They go out there two to three times a day in the morning. On the third day they bring money from home and actually get to spend it buying groceries. They shop for themselves which teaches them life skills.”

diverse-learners-1Castillo said the program has been a big success. It’s now incorporated at the district’s second high school, Donna North High School. “The students are learning their duties and responsibilities that they are assigned. We’re still not at the place we want to be where we can place one or two students in a real job setting after they age out of high school, but that’s our goal,” Castillo said. “We had one student that was very close but the parents were hesitant. I don’t know if it’s a culture thing. The parents find it hard to let go. We’re working to get their support.”