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Brandon Sun - PRINT EDITION

Neelin's Life Skills class drawing raves

Ryan Friesen holds on to colourful glowing fiber-optic cables in the Sensory Room at Neelin High School on Wednesday morning. The room features colourful lights and lamps, some of which users can control, as well as comfy furniture and relaxing music. It is one of the many features of the Life Skills program at the school.

TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN Enlarge Image

Ryan Friesen holds on to colourful glowing fiber-optic cables in the Sensory Room at Neelin High School on Wednesday morning. The room features colourful lights and lamps, some of which users can control, as well as comfy furniture and relaxing music. It is one of the many features of the Life Skills program at the school.

Sheila Deacon knew right away École secondaire Neelin High School’s Life Skills program was a perfect fit for her 17-year-old daughter, Jillian.

Zachary McIntosh leaps off the three metre diving board at the Sportsplex during a weekly swim class for students in the Life Skills program at Neelin High School.

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Zachary McIntosh leaps off the three metre diving board at the Sportsplex during a weekly swim class for students in the Life Skills program at Neelin High School. (TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN)

Arlene Stevenson, an Educational Assistant at Neelin High School, asks a question to Sam Allingham while playing a board game with students in the Life Skills program on Wednesday morning.

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Arlene Stevenson, an Educational Assistant at Neelin High School, asks a question to Sam Allingham while playing a board game with students in the Life Skills program on Wednesday morning. (TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN)

Mark Judson-Davis bowls during a trip to Thunderbird Bowl for students in Neelin’s Life Skills program.

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Mark Judson-Davis bowls during a trip to Thunderbird Bowl for students in Neelin’s Life Skills program. (TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN)

Sheila Deacon says her 17-year-old daughter Jillian is showing signs of growth thanks to the Life Skills program at Neelin High School.

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Sheila Deacon says her 17-year-old daughter Jillian is showing signs of growth thanks to the Life Skills program at Neelin High School. (SUBMITTED)

Darbe Cunningham and Kayla Wright relax in the Sensory Room at Neelin High School earlier this week. The room features colourful lights and lamps, some of which users can control, as well as comfy furniture and relaxing music. It is one of the many features of the Life Skills program at the school.

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Darbe Cunningham and Kayla Wright relax in the Sensory Room at Neelin High School earlier this week. The room features colourful lights and lamps, some of which users can control, as well as comfy furniture and relaxing music. It is one of the many features of the Life Skills program at the school. (TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN)

"It’s been the best for her to help her grow and develop," Sheila said.

Without a local Life Skills program, Jillian would have had to work closely with an educational assistant throughout high school or rely on home-based programming. Both options would have segregated Jillian from children her age, denying her a typical high school experience.

"That would have been really tough because she’s such a social little girl," Sheila said. "That would have been very difficult for her."

Jillian was diagnosed with autism at the age of three. Prior to Neelin’s Life Skills class, she attended a similar program offered at Riverheights School and Valleyview Centennial School. This is Jillian’s third year at Neelin, and although she had to take some time off due to illness, Sheila said her daughter is showing signs of growth.

"Her tastes have matured in many ways and she just loves the time spent there," Sheila said. "It’s great that we have a program like we do in Brandon."

Among the various activities she enjoys, Jillian’s favourite is swimming, a recent addition to the program’s schedule.

For an hour once a week, Life Skills students take a bus to Brandon’s Community Sportsplex for Canadian Red Cross swimming lessons through the Adapted Aquatics program. This is a pilot program that started in October and will wrap up Dec. 18 for evaluation. It will then be decided whether it will be a permanent fixture in Brandon.

The program is being piloted in more than 15 facilities across Western Canada, Sportsplex program and events co-ordinator Kathleen Low said.

"Once we get feedback from the participants of the program, support staff as well as instructors ... we will determine whether or not it will meet the needs of some of our youth and children in the Brandon area," Low said. "It looks like things are going quite well."

The program provides youth with physical and cognitive disabilities a chance to learn swimming fundamentals in small groups.

Amber Thievin-Andres, one of three instructors assisting with the program, said it has been rewarding working with this particular group of students.

"It’s been really fantastic," she said. "I’ve seen so much improvement with the kids. I had them in the shallow end and now they’re swimming in water where they can’t touch."

While the permanent addition of a swimming program would be welcomed, Sheila admits there’s always room for more.

"It’s extremely important that when these kids emerge from their Life Skills program that there’s something out there for them to become involved in," she said. "There’s still much that can be done in that area to find worthwhile, valuable places where they can learn and work on their skills heading onward in their lives."

Sheila has been the president of the Westman Autism Parent Support Group since it first started in 2001. The group has grown to include 65 families across Westman.

"Sometimes it can be quite isolating when you have a child with special needs ... it’s really nice to have a group that can help make you feel like you’re not alone."

For Jillian, Neelin’s Life Skills program seems to be a step toward the kind of life her mother dreams of her having.

The program offers a wide range of academic programming, including literacy, numeracy, budgeting, time concepts, work experience programs within the community and during class time. Another aspect is helping to integrate students into the community through visits to local businesses and organizations, class outings as well as preparing food for the school’s canteen.

Life Skills students are a huge part of Neelin, principal Michael Adamski says.

"They’re very much a part of our school culture here and I think it’s recognized in all areas of our school how important the students that make up this program are," Adamski said. "They make us think and they make us address different things in the school that perhaps we overlooked."

Robert Cullen has been a special education teacher since 1995 and has been involved with Neelin’s Life Skills program since 2001. Over the years, they’ve made minor changes to the program’s schedule to fit the individual needs of students. But one thing that has never changed is Neelin’s inclusive environment.

"The kids are so supportive, and as a principal that makes me feel pretty good to see that in our young people," Adamski said.

Currently, there are 30 students between the ages of 14 and 21 enrolled in the program. There are 20 educational assistants and three teachers who provide one-on-one time with each individual.

Students can stay in the program until they turn 21.

Cullen said the most rewarding aspect of his job is witnessing the students grow into young adults.

"We try to transition them the best we can to be as independent as possible in the community," Cullen said.

Located near Neelin’s cafeteria, the Life Skills program area of the school is equipped with accessible washrooms, a fully operational kitchen, common room, two large classrooms and meeting room.

A unique feature of the space is the sensory room — a project that was initiated in 2009 and opened in 2011. Students spend about 30 minutes a day in the small dark room, lit with various colourful low lights and plenty of cushions to relax and unwind upon. The room very much has a calming effect on students, making it an integral part of the program.

"You and I can self-regulate ourselves. Individuals with disabilities with any type of sensory dysfunction need some assistance in regulating their body," Cullen said.

As for Jillian’s plans once she leaves Neelin, Sheila said she’s hoping to find something her daughter can smoothly transition to.

"We’re always kind of keeping our eyes open for what might be a nice fit for her because there’s certainly going to be a void to fill when she’s finished the program."

Although she can’t predict whether her daughter will ever be able to live independently, Sheila refuses to give up hope.

"We’re still learning. She’s still showing us what she can do."

» lenns@brandonsun.com

Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 7, 2013

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Sheila Deacon knew right away École secondaire Neelin High School’s Life Skills program was a perfect fit for her 17-year-old daughter, Jillian.

"It’s been the best for her to help her grow and develop," Sheila said.

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Sheila Deacon knew right away École secondaire Neelin High School’s Life Skills program was a perfect fit for her 17-year-old daughter, Jillian.

"It’s been the best for her to help her grow and develop," Sheila said.

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