School district provides life skills training for its differently-abled students

Oct. 2, 2019 | Sarah Heinonen

Students participate in the grocery shopping experience.
Reminder Publishing submitted photo.

HAMPDEN/WILBRAHAM – “If you did a grocery list, did everybody total it?” Kim Festa asked her students.

Festa is a transitional teacher/specialist at the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District’s (HWRSD) 18- to 22-year-old program. The special education program, which began in September, teaches student life skills and offers them opportunities to use those skills in the community.

An example of that is the grocery project. The students make grocery lists and are taken grocery shopping, during which they practice budgeting, time management, comparison shopping, social skills, and handling money. The students then learn how to cook a meal with the groceries. Students are quizzed Jeopardy-style on what they learned through the exercise.

Festa said each student has unique abilities and challenges and so each has an individualized learning plan (IEP). The skills they learn are designed to fulfill their personal goals. HWRSD Superintendent Albert Ganem added that these IEPs might look different than what people are used to because they are focused on life skills rather than academics. He said parents are heavily involved in defining the goals and areas of focus.

The program, housed at the former Thornton W. Burgess Middle School, currently has five students but Superintendent Albert Ganem said there is room to grow. Establishing the program for HWRSD students was the first step. Previously, students with disabilities who were between the ages of 18 and 22 were sent out of district to receive instruction. Ganem said that bringing them back into the district saved money and offered them the opportunity to be educated in their own community.

The next step will be to welcome students from surrounding school districts into the program. Ganem said the district is hoping to offer those student learning opportunities closer to home than many of the existing programs.

Being close to home is important for the students.

“You want [the students] to know the people at Big Y down the street,” Festa said. “And these students are rockstars. Everywhere they go out into the community, people know them.” Festa said they are “trying to embed [the students] in the community,” and in return, she said, “the community has been very accommodating.”

The students participate in internships that correlate to their interests. Students have opportunities to work at an auto detailing business, in the kitchens at  Minnechaug Regional High School and Wilbraham Middle School, the library, and the senior center. Festa rotates the internships a few times during the year to give the students a well-rounded experience.

Two of the students attend Holyoke Community College two days per week with the help of an education coach and some have part-time jobs, Festa said.

“It’s so great to see their confidence,” Festa stated. “Some people think, working with these communities, all they can do is janitorial work. That’s not true.”

Any business or organization interested in partnering with the program to provide internships can contact the district office at 596-3884 or

The students will also be involved in “Best Buddies,” a non-profit that describes its mission as “creating opportunities for one-to-one friendships, integrated employment, leadership development, and inclusive living for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”

Springfield College is home to a chapter with which the HWRSD program will be partnering to create relationships in the community. Best Buddies also sponsors opportunities, such as the job-shadowing day at MAPFRE Insurance in Webster in which the students will be participating.

When the students leave the program they will each have a “transition passport,” a portfolio with their skills, job evaluations, resumes, interviews, and job tours to help them move into the next chapter of life.

“I want them to be as independent as possible. I want them to happy and be successful,” said Festa.

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