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Government kitchen to be used by teens with disabilities
Project readies students with disabilities for real-life experiences
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Oakwood Occasions currently operates out of the kitchen at McEver Road United Methodist Church. From the left, employees are Elizabeth Vinke, Paige Adams and owner Dannella Burnett.

In terms of tax dollars or government revenues, it wasn’t a major vote.

But Commissioner Scott Gibbs shed tears as he and the other members of the Hall County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to approve a lease of the new Hall County Government Center’s fourth-floor kitchen space Thursday.

“I’m going to cry,” Gibbs said when asked for comment.

The lease, with full-service catering company Oakwood Occasions, will likely bring the opportunity of 15 more jobs to the community as well as $12,000 in revenue and a new eatery for employees and visitors of the government center on Browns Bridge Road.

But that’s not why Gibbs cried.

Along with its regular full-time and part-time employees, Oakwood Occasions will use the new government center kitchen as a teaching space for teenagers with developmental or physical disabilities, helping to prepare them for future careers in hospitality and the culinary arts.

And Gibbs has a son with special needs.

“This may give him an opportunity,” Gibbs said in a rare moment of public emotion for any commission member. “I just can’t say thank you enough.”

Dannella Burnett, owner of Oakwood Occasions, hopes to open in her new space by the end of October. From the fourth floor of the giant government center complex, Oakwood Occasions will serve breakfast and lunch to employees and visitors.

On the first floor, Burnett has plans for a coffee kiosk that will also serve pastries.

And outside of the building, Burnett will continue her regular catering activities. She plans to add 10 to 15 more positions to her business, which currently employs about 15 people.

She’ll also continue a partnership she’s had with Lanier Charter Career Academy since she opened in McEver Road United Methodist Church three and half years ago.

But with the new space, Burnett will have new internship opportunities for students at the school who have developmental or physical disabilities.

Burnett’s will be the third community business partnering with the Hall County school system’s Project Success to provide internships for students with disabilities.

Project Success is a program that readies students with disabilities for real-life experience as independent adults, be they professional, domestic or basic necessities, like doing laundry and taking public transport.

The program already has partnerships with Walgreens pharmacy and New Horizons West, a local nursing home. Previously, the program partnered with Hall County’s Parks and Leisure Services department.

The four-year-old program targets students age 18 to 21, who have completed at least four years of high school. In Georgia, students with disabilities are served by local secondary school systems until they reach their 22nd birthday or until they reach their “transition outcome” of employment or a diploma, said Susan Wright, the transition coordinator for the Hall County school system and a teacher in the transition academy Project Success at Lanier Charter Career Academy.

At Lanier Charter Career Academy, the students perform various jobs, working on the custodial staff, performing laundry services and working in the school’s cafe as servers, food runners and in food preparation, said Rosa Evans, a teacher in the program.

But as it has with Oakwood Occasions, the program seeks to partner with outside businesses that could be potential employers of students with disabilities after they leave school.

Right now, there are 24 students in the program, who rotate between each of the outside internships every six to 12 weeks, Wright said.

The students are sent on their internships with a “job coach,” who helps the student adjust to the new work environment without adding work to the partnering business owners.

“The job coaches are there to help teach the job description so the business can continue to run without having to pull somebody from their staff, and then data is taken on mastery of each piece of the job description,” Wright said.

The job coach gradually fades into the background as the intern gains skills and independence.

At least two to three interns will be working with Oakwood Occasions when it opens at the government center.

“Hopefully, we’ll hire some of these kids,” Burnett said.

That’s the goal Wright and Evans have in mind with Project Success.

“The purpose of our Project Success program is inclusion — inclusiveness — so that our interns are working alongside everybody else. So that’s the important piece that (Burnett) was talking about,” Wright said. “She will have employees that she will bring with her; there will be interns from the Lanier Charter Career Academy that aren’t identified as having disabilities; there will be interns with disabilities — and the beauty of it is everybody is working side-by-side.”

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