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Down a quiet corridor at Southeast Missouri Hospital, Heather Tinnin pauses to reflect on the lessons she's learned during the past four months.
There have been a lot of them -- learning how to sterilize surgical tools, working with patients in the psychiatric ward -- but the most important one is difficult for the 18-year-old Jackson student to put into words.
"I know, I know!," Pam Deneke, Tinnin's teacher, waves her hand in the air as if waiting to be called on. "Heather has learned to take care of Heather. She now knows she can be self-sufficient."
There haven't been a lot of opportunities in her life for Tinnin to feel good about herself, but right now, she feels like one of the best.
That's exactly what Deneke, a special education teacher at Jackson High School, was hoping for when she began developing the idea for a community-based work program for learning-disabled students.
In fact, the school chose BEST -- an acronym for Building Experiences for Successful Transitions -- as the name of the program.
For two and a half hours each day, five days a week, students in BEST work at Southeast Missouri Hospital in jobs that range from clerical and lab work to outpatient rehabilitation and radiology.
Each of the eight JHS teenagers involved has their own personal success story from the program, but Tinnin's is especially encouraging.
After seven weeks in BEST, the hospital offered her a part-time after-school job, which allowed her to get a new car and open her own checking account. Eventually, Tinnin would like to work her way up to a job as a nurse's assistant at the hospital.
BEST came about after a follow-up study showed that 35 percent of Jackson High School's special education graduates were either unemployed or underemployed.
"We saw kids graduating, and we were very proud of them, but then they were just sitting at home on the couch," Deneke said.
The solution to that, school officials decided, was to provide hands-on work experience and build job skills while the students are in high school.
Terri Nagel, who organizes the BEST program from the hospital's end as Southeast's education coordinator, said it's benefited students and the hospital alike.
"The hospital had never done anything like this," Nagel said. "The students are very sincere. They want to work. They're learning in entry-level positions, which are hard to find qualified employees for or people willing to work there."
Before beginning work, the students went through a week-long orientation and took tests on confidentiality, hospital code and safety. They underwent criminal background checks and were tested for tuberculosis.
The Missouri Mentoring program has provided some funding and resources to the program. Transportation and other costs are mostly absorbed by the school district.
Deneke hopes eventually to expand the program to include mentally impaired students as well as those with learning disabilities. Eight students are currently in the program, all juniors and seniors. Next year, Deneke expects the program to grow to at least 12 students.
335-6611, extension 128