Shawna Goupil looks out at a classroom full of high school students.
Twenty smiling teenagers share stories, gobble pizza and chatter happily while making Halloween decorations in a Belmont secondary classroom. The students look like any others, but participate in modified programs for those with designations including learning disabilities, autism, chronic health issues and physical disabilities. Despite this, Goupil says the potential in the room and the rewards of working with them are great.
“At first people might be hesitant, but after they meet them and work with them, they love them (and) get just as much out of it as the kids do,” she says. “They are wonderful young ladies and men and they’re very positive and have a lot of potential.”
Co-founder Goupil manages the Individually Modified Programs to Acquire Choices for Transitions (IMPACT) program. It was built around needs identified by families with children with barriers, she says, and empowers students to ask for help, plus gain independence and social skills in the classroom.
“We have to have a program for them to deal with more practical life skills. When they leave here they will start their lives as adults. The biggest goal for this program is to have our kids move toward independence so they can have the greatest quality of life after high school.”
Youth participate in IMPACT for half the day, supplementing the rest of their day with any other classes they choose. Students can stay involved in the Ministry of Education-funded program until they are 19. For students like 17 year old Chelsey Ducharme, who has suffered numerous brain injuries – including some she no longer remembers – the program has been a blessing.
“It has really helped me. Before high school I had so many brain injuries I couldn’t function properly, I couldn’t do anything, I could barely do one block of school a day,” she says. “Now that I’m here it’s helped me be more social and learn more about how not to be just afraid. I am now doing four blocks a day, a whole day at school and I’m very proud of that.”
Ducharme says the camaraderie between classmates and the relationships with the teachers who treat her like anyone else has been an amazing experience. She feels she has made significant growth, as have her classmates, since she started the program two years ago.
“I am no longer afraid to go outside. I am around peers, people that have just as many issues as I have and needed just as much help. This class is different, yes, for special needs, but this teacher does not give up on us. The teachers help us till the end.”
Ducharme hopes to be an architect one day and said the journey has been made possible, in part, because of the program that has made a difference in her life.
“The best part is knowing that just because I am different, there is someone out there that says ‘I am going to help you through high school, I am going to get you to college,’” she says. “I have a future because of (them).”
Ducharme isn’t the only one who says the program has been a welcome change.
Classmate Brandon Forrester, also 17, has felt “put on the spot and centred out” in past classroom settings, but no longer feels that way.
“When I first came to the school I was very, very nervous. But then I got really comfortable really fast because a lot of the people here have some of the same problems that I do,” he says. “I feel more comfortable here and I am getting more help, so that is awesome, and I have no reason to stay away from school, so that makes me happy.”
Goupil says the pleasure is all hers, and hopes others give them the opportunities they deserve when they go out into the workforce.
“I was in elementary school, I have been a middle school teacher, I have taught P.E. and this is my favourite job I have ever had. I love working with them because they bring so much joy into the lives of everyone that they work with,” she says. “Kids will do what they can if they are able to – and we make sure to provide lots of opportunity to be successful.”