Unique graduation ceremony held for a class that can teach everyone a lesson

NOW: Unique graduation ceremony held for a class that can teach everyone a lesson

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- It's not unusual to see tears at Mitchell International Airport, but the reason people were crying there on Friday had nothing to do with the flights coming and going.

In a large conference room, the seven newest graduates of the Project SEARCH program received their certificates. The class, which substitutes for a school year, provides jobs skills training to older teens and young adults with physical or developmental disabilities.

The 10-month course at Mitchell International was a collaboration with Project SEARCH, along with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and businesses that operate within the airport.

R.J. Szpara celebrated both his graduation and 21st birthday Friday. He said he was happy to learn cleaning and organizing skills from various shifts at the Summerfest gift shop and Cousin's Subs.

"My favorite job was doing sweeping, and cleaning and dusting," Szpara said. "Putting shipments away and putting away, like, drinks and snacks."

The course instructor, Karina Tweedell, who is also a special education teacher at MPS, said the course aimed to have students learn about themselves, in addition to acquiring job skills.

"A lot of it is being able to get along with others," Tweedell said. "I think that's a major one that a lot of employers are looking for."

Over the 10 months interns worked at the airport, they moved around the airport in three different rotations, ensuring they would get different tastes of possible jobs.

Shakayla Trotter, who graduated Friday, said she enjoyed her rotations through restaurants and coffee shops. She said the experience helped her become much less shy.

"I had to talk to people I didn't know, and that's a skill I'm still working on," Trotter said. "But as I'm here, they got me opened."

Graduate Angel Arenas said he hoped to land a job that involved lots of movement. He said his biggest challenge during the course was accepting how some of his classmates were different than he is.

"It takes time to really get to know them, and try to accept them for who they are," Arenas said. "But over time, I started to feel less and less, I still feel it to this day, but over time, in a couple years, I'll probably get better at it and really be nice to people."

Tweedell said Arenas' progress was the type of lesson she hoped anyone could learn from the course. Project SEARCH classes include people with challenges ranging from autism to physical disabilities.

"It's important for all of us, whether we have a mind that's neurotypical or a neurodivergent mind, to come together," Tweedell said. "And see how we can find common understanding, regardless of how our minds operate."

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