BARNEGAT – As Dominic Cosmanic grasped the red handle of a heat press machine, he clenched a t-shirt in his other hand. Cosmanic, 19, prepared to go to work.
Barnegat Township Special Education teacher Tom Duralek stood next to Cosmanic and encouraged the student with reassuring words and a smile. Cosmanic carefully spread the orange shirt onto the machine and seemed confident in taking the next step without looking back at his teacher.
The excitement came after Cosmanic completed the t-shirt special-ordered by a customer.
Owen Pezzuti, who is also 19 years old, exhibited a sense of pride as he posed with one of the district’s other special education teachers, Kirsten Sciallo. A display of finished products provided a sampling of what’s in store in a separate alcove of the Barnegat High School cafeteria.
Both Cosmanic and Pezzuti are part of the CLAWS Transition Program, which equips special needs students between the ages of 18-21 years old with skills beyond the classroom. The CLAWS acronym stands for Career, Learning, Awareness, Workplace Skills.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the CLAWMART’s entranceway has a large design that seems to coincide with Barnegat High School’s Bengal mascot.
The CLAWMART retail store affords students unique opportunities that translate into life skills and prepares them for employment. The concept of creating and producing designs for apparel came by way of a partnership with a local business.
Tom Lowe began helping the district part time in 2006 as a stage crew and lighting/sound advisor in the high school drama department and as an audio/video tech. About eight years ago, Lowe decided to start printing t-shirts as a part time business. A true entrepreneur, Lowe also headed up a software development business on a full-time basis as he juggled the other two gigs.
As the demand for t-shirts expanded, Lowe decided to grow his Artist-Tees.com business to a full-time venture. Meanwhile, a lightbulb went off when Lowe worked as part of the team filming the district’s board of education meetings.
“Artist-Tees was already supplying custom apparel and other products to the district since we started the company,” shared Lowe. “When I heard about the new CLAWS program and the new CLAWMART store at one of the meetings, I reached out to Dr. Latwis (Barnegat Superintendent) to see if we could sign on as a business partner with this amazing program.”
As Lowe describes it, the collaboration turned into a win-win opportunity for both CLAWS and for Artist-Tees.com. Lowe has created a website called clawmart.org that allows customers to choose shirts for different district fundraisers with a portion of the revenue shared with the school group.
Most importantly, however, are the benefits to the students in the program.
“The CLAWS students are learning valuable new skills and raising some money to help offset some of the CLAWMART costs,” Lowe explained. “And, of course, Artist-Tees.com has an opportunity to reach out to even more customers.”
Students who make up the CLAWMART retail team learn a variety of skills that will aid them once they leave the school environment. In addition to the mechanics of producing the merchandise, one of the program’s goals is to enhance interpersonal skills.
Customers who visit the CLAWMART store interact with students who continually receive coaching on handling all kinds of tasks, including customer service. While some of the students start off with some hesitance in answering customer questions, teachers give them the support they need. Students also learn how to process payments by cash, check, credit cards, vouchers, or automatic debits.
“Owen is actually working with Tom in our SLA (Structured Learning Experience) program as well,” shared William “Chip” Junker, Master Teacher of Special Education/SLE-CBI Coordinator. “That’s the part of our program that’s paired with outside community businesses.”
The Barnegat Township school district has partnered with 20 area businesses who bring in students in order to give them work experience. The exposure to real life jobs includes supervision and accompaniment by a trained job-coach. While students are unpaid, the experience they gain and the feeling of self-worth appears to be priceless.
Many local restaurants have agreed to work with the district’s SLE program, as well as retail establishments. In some cases, the transitional skills program has worked so well that it has resulted in job offers.
Careers after secondary school ends can be a difficult ladder to climb for just about anyone. The CLAWS program is the added touch to give people of all abilities the extra skills to find a place in the job market.