Skills for a lifetime

Daniel Miller, 19, of Strasburg, cleans up in the kitchen area inside the L.I.F.E. classroom at Central High School in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK — On a recent afternoon at Central High School, students in the county’s Learning Independence for Everyday program were hard at work.

Some were out at part-time jobs, experiencing how to make a living for themselves.

Others, who had already returned from their morning jobs, were preparing a late lunch and tidying up the apartment that doubles as a classroom.

Built in the school’s old locker room, the L.I.F.E. program was constructed “from the concrete up,” said Gina Stetter, director of special education for Shenandoah County Public Schools.

But it’s special education teacher Heather Miller and her 13 inaugural program participants who have made the apartment home.

Evan Gochenour, 19, of Woodstock, pours fruit into a group of containers as he helps with lunch at Central High School in Woodstock. Gochenour is a student in the school's L.I.F.E. program. Rich Cooley/Daily

Five days a week, young adults between the ages of 17 and 22, who are transitioning from high school graduate to fully fledged, contributing community member, meet with Miller and her staff to learn to live independently, advocate for themselves and become gainfully employed.

For Stetter, “It is amazing, that L.I.F.E. program.”

In the cozy but spacious apartment, the color scheme of rich black and springtime green reaches everything from the green throw pillows and dining room chairs to the matching oven mitts and kitchen cutting boards.

The open floor plan allows seamless transition from living room to TV area to kitchen and dining area, while easily hiding away spaces for laundry, cleaning supplies, food and a computer room.

In the classroom space at the back of the apartment, Paul Scroggins has found refuge for planning community programs. Nominated president of the Action Club, the 22-year-old said he’s planned everything from lunch outings to karaoke parties.

Paul Scroggins, 22, of Basye, types permission slips for the L.I.F.E. class in the computer room at Central High School in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily

“The list just goes on and on,” he said and noted he hopes to keep helping out even after graduating from L.I.F.E. this spring.

Next the group plans to run in a 5k race at James Madison University, where Miller said they visit weekly to converse with a more diverse population.

Recently they’ve been learning social skills, challenged to ride a bus, eat on campus, email various recipients, and start a conversation with someone they didn’t know.

Because L.I.F.E. is an authentic learning environment, Miller said the students are instrumental in how each day unfolds.

A pinwheel of daily chores was their idea of fairly distributing duties, though other tasks are decided according to preference, talent or ability.

Logan Burns, 21, of Strasburg, models the sign he made for the L.I.F.E. class' trail mix business. At left is his teacher, Heather Miller. Rich Cooley/Daily

A graphic designer, 21-year-old Logan Burns designed advertising materials for the group’s business selling coffee and donuts to high school teachers and staff, and trail mix to students at Central.

“After he made the sign,” Miller said, “we had record sales. He’s a great advertiser.”

Three days a week they join instructional assistant Cindy Ritter for 40-minute exercise sessions in the weight room or with DVDs at the apartment.

“It’s not just a little workout,” she said.

Proudly boasting a 58-pound loss since the program started last summer, 19-year-old Daniel Miller said he’s developed a passion for running track and doing the long jump.

Many of the students work two or three community jobs, which Heather Miller said they chose after trying out eight.

The idea, she said, is to let them explore how life will be after school is over.

“It’s like a seamless transition,” she said.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com