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USC job a dream come true for learning-disabled youth

by Sharon Stewart
Mark May of HSC Facilities Management discusses the wood shop with Gonzalo Ramirez, a Lanterman graduate who is now a full-time USC custodian, and Nelson Espinal, a Lanterman student.

Photo by Irene Fertik

A real job that pays a living wage is only a dream for many severely learning-disabled young people.

But that dream came true recently for Gonzalo Ramirez, who participated in a job training program at Lanterman High School and now has a job at USC.

“The years that Gonzalo spent working as a volunteer at the Automobile Association of America and other sites have paid off,” said Gerard Barnes, Lanterman’s community-based instruction teacher. “Personnel from USC’s Health Sciences Campus were aware of his top performance in this program. His work was outstanding enough that he has now been hired as a full-time, permanent custodian in the Building Services Department on the Health Sciences Campus.”

Lanterman students intern at USC, AAA Automobile Club of Southern California, UCLA, Orthopaedic Hospital and other locations, Barnes said.

Although about two dozen Lanterman students have interned in the Lanterman-USC Work Internship Program, Ramirez is the first to land a job at USC, Barnes said.

Nelson Espinal, who will start his second year as an HSC volunteer on Sept. 28, reminisced about working at USC’s Early Childhood Education Center last year.

“I like the children – they are beautiful,” said the 20-year-old native of El Salvador. “I helped set up breakfast, cleaned up the table, put the children in order and talked to them,” he said.

Barnes said Espinal spoke no English when he arrived at Lanterman two years ago. “Now he’s learning math and reading and is taking English classes every Saturday.” USC’s athletics department, Facilities Management Services and the Early Childhood Education Center all provide on-the-job training for severely learning disabled students from Lanterman.

“The internship program gives our kids a chance at becoming productive, contributing members of society,” said Tom McGinley, a career and transition service teacher at Lanterman. “These are wonderful kids who just need a chance to do something to prove themselves.”

The Lanterman students work very hard, said Jill Dennis, an administrative assistant in the athletics department.

“They stuff envelopes, attach labels to mail, sort boxes, hand out towels and fold laundry,” she said. “They are willing to do anything you ask.”

Ramirez was hired because he was the best person for the job, said Gary Pitassi, director of HSC Facilities Management Services.

“The success of the training program was a determining factor for trying a Lanterman graduate on a paid, full-time basis,” he said. “We hired him as a full-time custodial employee with the expectation that he would be able to handle the job with the same competence demonstrated by any of the other candidates we were considering.”

Pitassi said Ramirez’s performance paves the way for hiring other Lanterman graduates as long as the “training program continues to be successful.”