PACKAGED FOR SUCCESS
Last year, 18-year teaching veteran Victoria Schwandt—an employment development specialist with Hays Consolidated Independent School District’s (HCISD) special education department—was brainstorming ways to better serve some of her special needs students with respect to their vocational training.
“I was thinking about this group of students who are not able to go out into the community…maybe they’re runners or maybe they don’t follow directions well enough in situations where it could be dangerous for them,” she explains. “They needed a sheltered type of workshop where they could get closer supervision.” Luckily, the former Kyle Public Library building was just becoming available to the district, and Schwandt and HCISD jumped at the chance to occupy the building. Soon, the new Vocational Training Center became a reality.
What’s more, Schwandt discovered she had an ideal partner in Jardine Foods, Inc.—a Buda-based business that sells chili kits, salsas and other Lone Star State-themed condiments across the globe. “We make a product that’s a box or a bag that has all of the [prepackaged] spices, which are premeasured, all in a little kit, and is a great way for people who didn’t grow up in Texas to have a little bit of Texas on their table,” explains Jardine Foods’ Chairman Bobby McGee. “These things are a bit complex to assemble, and they require people putting ten little items in a box. It has to be done by hand.”
Schwandt says these kinds of deadline-free tasks performed at the center perfectly fit the bill for her students. “There’s a process with a beginning, middle and end,” she says. “This is exactly the kind of systematic work that my students can do.” In fact, the partnership has been so successful that it has allowed some students, who were previously struggling, to show hidden abilities—including an autistic young man who went from being highly distractible and in need of constant supervision to the most meticulous and productive maker of trays for the kits. “When it was time to go, we literally could not get him to leave,” Schwandt remembers. “He was continuing to work and he would not stop and everyone was just in amazement saying, Really? He did all of this?”
McGee agrees that the students in the program have done a great job and says it’s a positive situation for everyone involved. “We’re in the middle of the chili season, and they probably made ten or twelve percent of the chili boxes that we have shipped around the world [in 2013],” he says. “Exporting Texas culture and helping Texas kids simultaneously makes a great project. It’s awesome.”
Schwandt says this kind of success would never have been possible without the center and the generous support of Jardine Foods, which has not only provided her students with steady work, but also supports the program financially. “I’m so proud of my guys, and I am just so grateful to Jardine,” she says. “I can’t even express how much I appreciate their willingness to work with us and help our students.” —Nicole Lessin