"You don't know what you can do or can't do unless you ask," Ronald Costa said from the front of the Bel Air Reckord Armory stage Friday morning.
He looked squarely at the eight young men and women seated in the first row below him and reminded them that "teamwork is number one wherever you go, from the time you start to the time you end, and you guys are all part of the team."
Costa, cafeteria manager at William Paca Elementary School, was among several speakers who recognized many accomplishments of members of the Harford County Public Schools Future Link post-secondary education program, as they received their state and county certificates of program completion during a farewell ceremony at the armory. Future Link is open to developmentally challenged young men and women, ages 18 to 21, who have completed their high school requirements. The program provides life skills, academic and work experience training with the goal of helping each participant live independently.
Attended by family members, friends, teachers, mentors, job coaches, their transportation providers and Harford school officials, the ceremony showcased the talents of the program's stars, who have spent the two to three years since leaving local high schools learning a variety of academic and job-related skills to better prepare them for life's many challenges.
A retired member of the Air Force, where he was an aircraft mechanic, Costa told the story of how he settled in Harford County, became a PTA dad at his son's school, began working part-time in food service for the school system – even though he knew nothing about it – became a cafeteria manager at Churchville Elementary and, in the process, a mentor and trainer for Future Link .
"You couldn't ask for a better job for a disabled veteran," Costa, who worked with six of Friday's honorees, said. "I can't say enough about what these kids do."
He was especially proud, he said, that several of the young people in this year's Future Link completion class already have jobs, including in food services. He also drew a few chuckles when he produced a poster showing his "team members" at William Paca sporting the ball caps of his favorite NFL team, the New England Patriots.
Sarah E. Killian, a transition resource itinerant with the county's public schools, who worked with all eight students, likened them to captains of a ship, whose anchor is their parents and guardians and whose lifeboats are their teachers, paraeducators, job coaches and bus drivers.
"Your life and your future – you are in charge," she said. "No matter what your final destination, be the best you can be."
Nicholas Lawrence "Nick" Rhodes said that when he left C. Milton Wright High School in 2012, "I didn't think I wanted to go through more schooling."
But Rhodes, who is the first three-year member of the program, said Future Link has been "very helpful" in strengthening him academically and providing work experience.
One of two program members who spoke during Friday's ceremony, Rhodes said he was able to take courses at Harford Community College and work as a custodial assistant at John Archer School. And, he said, he realized his goal of becoming a custodian when he was recently hired for a full-time position at C. Milton Wright.
Future Link teachers Robin Nemser and Amy Buddemeier praised Rhodes for his gumption in pursuing that goal, noting that one of Rhodes' mentors had said they wished they had more employees like him.
They also said he became known among his fellow students and teachers for his "off the top questions" and "crazy stories."
Steven John Sheats, who also spoke, completed two years with Future Link after leaving John Archer and said the program taught him "how to dress right, be on time and be a team player."
He said he was able to work food service jobs at Churchville Elementary, North Harford High and Bull on the Beach in Campus Hills. Notable for being the "singer" in this year's completion class, Sheats has been hired as an assembler by Acadia Windows and Doors in Rosedale.
Jacob Oliver Dean, who came to Future Link from Patterson Mill High School, also worked at Bull on the Beach, where his teachers said he showed great skills that should help him find permanent employment in food service. He was also praised for his "excellent work ethic."
Lindsay Antoinette King joined Future Link two years ago from Edgewood High School. Among her notable achievements with the program was earning a child care certificate at Harford Community College. She has been hired by Creative Journeys Learning in Edgewood.
Kimberly Tamara Roberts joined Future Link from Edgewood High School and has been the program's fashionista, her teachers said. She plans to learn sign language and was one of the students who worked in food service at William Paca under Jacobs.
Michael Anthony Jajistar joined Future Link from Joppatowne High and was the group's personal weatherman the past two years. He plans to study electronics and has landed a seasonal job in landscaping at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
Emily Renee Rice came from Havre de Grace High School and has a skill at finding things on her walks and turning them into all sorts of unique crafts, her teachers said. She was able to hone those skills while working at Joanne Fabrics.
Genissa Anne Thomas came from Edgewood High School and became the group's outdoorswoman, excelling on the high ropes at Harford Glen, including crossing the Burma Bridge alone. She's also an avid hiker of the Ma & Pa Trail.
All eight honorees were featured in a moving slide slow that showed them learning, playing, working and out and about in the community, as a group and as individuals.
"It's a program very dear to my heart," Susan Austin, HCPS director of special education, said.
The program has about 24 members annually, Nemser said. Four of this year's graduates already have jobs. Some of the others are looking, while a few will receive additional coaching and assistance from an adult support services organization.
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"I like to say the last day of Future Link is like the first day of the rest of your life," Nemser said following the ceremony, her pride obviously showing. "I feel so fortunate to be part of this program."