Local Student Blazing New Trail for Peers
Parker Vickers is paving the way for his current and future classmates to join the ranks of the Cook Children's Medical Center’s workforce.
Story by Ashley Antle. Video by Tom Riehm.
You will have a hard time finding someone better suited than Parker Vickers to help children choose and build a cuddly friend at the Build-A-Bear Workshop at Cook Children’s Medical Center. Funny, charismatic, kind and big-hearted are a few of the words people use to describe the 18-year-old.
Vickers is a trailblazer, too. As the first to participate in a Cook Children’s Medical Center pilot internship program designed to employ students from the Child Study Center at Cook Children’s Jane Justin School, he’s paving the way for his current and future classmates to join the ranks of the medical center’s workforce.
Vickers is in his fourth year as a student at the Jane Justin Upper School where children with developmental and intellectual challenges are educated using individualized lessons designed to meet each child’s unique learning needs. Teaching life skills necessary for students to achieve productive and meaningful lives is a big part of the curriculum.
“Our mission is to impart skills so that our students can transition successfully into the next learning environment,” said Kimberly James-Kelly, M.S., M.S. Ed., LBA-TX, assistant principal, Jane Justin Upper School. “So we want to create lifelong learners, and that is the case for students transitioning on to more traditional educational settings or for students transitioning on to the workplace setting or to post-secondary education. Really, we just want to help our students achieve the goals they have for themselves and support them in achieving the goals that their family has for them as well.”
The pilot internship program, formally known as the Integrated Workforce Training Pilot Program, was born of the vision of Cook Children’s inclusion, diversity and equity (ID&E) team as they identified new ways for Cook Children’s to lead with inclusivity. The ID&E team worked together with the Child Study Center, the Jane Justin School, Cook Children’s Talent Acquisition and Build-A-Bear to develop the program.
The internship offers students a real-life work setting to practice and hone the skills they’ve learned while attending the Jane Justin School—skills like listening to and following instructions, customer service, adjusting to changes in the work environment, accepting feedback from a manager and working independently. A job coach from the Jane Justin School joins the intern during their hours, usually four hours per week, to guide, advise and offer support while on the job.
Just like their in-school instruction, the internship is aligned with the student’s unique strengths, interests and hobbies. Vickers is particularly fond of stuffed animals and plushies, making him the perfect fit for a post in the Build-A-Bear Workshop.
“We work with the administrators of the Child Study Center and they identify a high-potential student,” explained Tracy Vang, Cook Children’s ID&E director. “Once they identify the student, we look at their strengths and try to match them to the opportunities that we have available. It's very important that we don't pick and choose where the student goes because we have bias that leads us to put people where we think they belong. That's not our goal or our intent here. We want to match students to where they feel they belong.”
Vickers started his three-month internship in September as a front-of-the-store greeter. He progressed to helping guests choose their bear and, as a testament to his initiative, now holds the coveted role of bear stuffer.
“If you know anything about Build-A-Bear, you know that stuffing gets everywhere,” said Kimberly Johnson, Build-A-Bear Workshop manager at Cook Children’s. “Parker was quick to get brooms and sweep up the stuffing. When he noticed that the bear inventory out front was low, he went and grabbed bears from the back to stock in the store. I was so amazed and proud that he took that initiative upon himself. So the next step was to teach Parker how to stuff and, if you've been in here, you know the big machine and loud noises are a little ominous. But he took to it like a champ.”
Vickers has been so successful at his job that, over the Thanksgiving holiday, he worked without the oversight of his job coach. It was a proud moment for James-Kelly and his Jane Justin School family.
“He has worked so hard to learn what it means to be an employee at Build-A-Bear and at Cook Children's,” James-Kelly said. “He attended the onboarding training for all new hires. He pays close and careful attention to instructions in the workplace. He asks questions and acquires the skills pretty quickly. He practices them on his own. He takes pride in his work. So when the opportunity arose for him to work independent of our support, we looked at data and we talked with the staff at Build-A-Bear, and we all thought it was time. We’re incredibly proud of him.”
The program is as much a win for the medical center as it is for Vickers and his peers, Vang says.
“I would say the biggest benefit to the hospital is in the spirit of diversity and bringing everyone with different backgrounds together,” she said. “We have kids that have developmental disabilities and challenges and, when they see someone who looks and learns like them, they are able to connect with that person for a more meaningful experience. That really helps us improve our business goals by creating a patient experience marked by our core values of respect, kindness, collaboration, safety, generosity and imagination.”
Speaking of imagination, Vickers has it in spades.
“I’ve got lots of ideas in my head,” he said.
Those ideas are on full display when he performs the Build-A-Bear Heart Ceremony where children make a wish and promise to care for their bear. The ceremony is led by Bear Builders who tailor the dedication to each child’s interests, hopes, dreams and circumstances.
Once the pilot is complete, program leaders are exploring other opportunities for Jane Justin School students to receive real-world training at Cook Children’s. Potential work experiences include the cafeteria, transportation department, dietary aid and environmental services, to name a few. The hope is that Cook Children’s will be able to offer students employment once they complete their internship and that they become members of Cook Children’s work family. Vickers feels “very good” about blazing that trail for those that come behind him.
“I’m the first one,” he said proudly. “If this turns out to be a success, then everyone else would be able to have a chance to do this.”
About the Child Study Center
Child Study Center Cook Children's (CSC) provides children with complex developmental and behavioral disabilities the highest quality diagnosis, treatment, and education, to help them achieve their full potential. Developmental and behavioral challenges are frequently multi-dimensional. At Child Study Center, not only do we understand that, we embrace it. Click here to learn more.
About Jane Justin School
Jane Justin School, in partnership with families and the community, fosters the knowledge and life skills necessary for our students to achieve productive and meaningful lives while respecting and embracing the individuality of each child. To achieve this mission, Jane Justin School responds to the changing needs of our students and their families with compassion and educational excellence. Click to learn more.