Cierra Binkley loves working with her hands so much that she sometimes goes by “Rosie the Riveter,” and thanks to Wilson County Schools’ adult transition program for people with special needs she has plenty of projects under her belt.

Binkley returned to her favorite job site, Recycled Granite Nashville, on Tuesday, and said the work has helped her realize she can live independently. High school graduates from across the county are involved with the program, a partnership with Cumberland University aimed at building both work and social skills.

“When I get a house and stuff, I can do it on my own,” Binkley said. “We do wine coolers, flower pots, signs, cheese graters, all kinds of things. I like using the drill because it’s quicker and easier.”

Students involved in the program spend the school year working various job sites, from CU itself to businesses like Culver’s, Holiday Inn and World Wide Technology. Wilson Central High School’s work-based learning students do the same, and both groups started their year at Recycled Granite.

“It’s good, I have a lot of fun with the tools and talking to everyone as well,” WCHS senior Nathan Harrell said. “After I get out, I’ll have a lot of work skills.”

Harrell hopes to take up photography after high school, while other students find their calling from working one of their job sites. For each of them, the work and social skills they learn on-site are invaluable.

“We’ve seen a lot of students go to work after doing the program,” Wilson County Schools special education teacher Ellen Mattingly said. “I’ve got a student who they’re looking to hire at CU because of their job performance and work ethic … it helps them with inclusivity, being a part of the community and having a purpose in life. Maybe they couldn’t go to college or maintain employment at a high-level job, but they want to and can succeed.”

Wilson Central High School’s exceptional education teacher Kelly Gallion said students involved with the program build a sense of self-worth from their accomplishments at each job site, and each student’s schedule is based on their personal interests.

“If we have a student who’s really interested in food service, we’ll send them there more often,” she said. “But we want the students to be at all of the job sites throughout the year. They feel a sense of pride, and you’ll hear them say ‘I can do this, and I’m great at it.’ ”

Mattingly helps connect the school system with businesses willing to work with the students, and Wilson Central’s job coaches travel alongside their students to each site to help them get the most from the experience.

“They’ll be here three days a week,” Recycled Granite Nashville’s co-manager Steve Lurie said. “We learn probably as much from them as they do from us, and we enjoy them being around. I think they learn a lot about themselves too as they build different character traits. Cierra was really good with quality and would almost go behind other people and tell them how to do things. In a way, that’s the birthing of a supervisory capacity with her.”

Lurie said the students’ work can also show their parents what they’re capable of and help them gain the freedom to try more new things.

“We’ve found that these young adults love to work and want to feel needed,” Recycled Granite Nashville co-manager Shannon Henry said. “A lot of them need more repetitive work because that repetition helps them master a skill. Once they know how to do something, they want to show and teach someone else. The great thing to see from our young adults is it also helps draw them out of their shells and discover who they are.”

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