Learning job skills, gaining confidence and making a very big friend with the help of an education choice scholarship

Oct 10 2022 • By Roger Mooney

JACKSONVILLE, Florida – Not every student at North Florida School of Special Education rides Chief within minutes of meeting the big horse, but that’s what James Guha did one day during the summer of 2021.

Oh, it took some encouraging and a little cajoling from Andrew Sack, the barn manager. Chief is big and a bit ornery. A Paint, he stands 16.2 hands (5.6 feet) tall. He likes to test newcomers to his stall.

James is big, too. He’s 6-foot-3, 220 pounds. But he had never been around horses.

James, 20, who is on the autism spectrum, had just started in NFSSE’s summer program as he prepared to begin his first year in the school’s transition program for adults ages 18-22. Part of his time would be working with the farm animals.

James and Chief

“He was ready to rock and roll and ride horses,” Sack said.

Then James met Chief.

“He’s big,” James said. “Like really big.”

Sack had James pet Chief, then brush him. Then Sack asked James if he wanted to ride the horse. And James was a little …

“Scared to death,” Sack said. “I would be, too, a first timer, but he did it. I love his willpower.”

James settled into the saddle and a friendship was forged.

“I’m starting to warm up to Chief,” James said. “He’s growing on me a little bit, but at the same time, he’s still scary.”

Working with Chief was one of the highlights of James’s first year at NFSSE, a private school in Jacksonville that offers an innovative academic and therapeutic setting for students, ages 6-22, who have intellectual and developmental differences. Those in the transition program learn functional academics – how to budget money and pay bills, how to read and interpret signs, personal hygiene, job skills. James, who lives an hour from the school in Orange Park, attends NFSSE on a Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities, managed by Step Up For Students.

“It’s a really nice school,” James said. “I’ve learned a lot of job skills and other skills that will help me in life, like communication skills and how I need to work at a job, how to advocate for myself, how to ask questions.”

James is working toward a career in cyber security.

Before NFSSE James attended his district schools, graduating from high school in June 2021. But his mom, Kristine, knew he wasn’t ready for college.

“He got to the age where we needed more support for his life after school, then it became much more crucial where he went and the (FES-UA) scholarship allowed him to do that,” Kristine said.

They visited several schools in the Jacksonville area similar to NFSSE. Kristine wanted James to choose which school he would attend. He felt the most comfortable when he toured NFSSE, and that’s the school he picked.

“Here, uniformly, he gets what he needs, because everyone is on the same page for him” Kristine said. “For him to go into a school like (NFSSE) for transition was perfect, because there are social events and clubs he can join, and his peers are all friends. They don’t see each other as having a disability, so he doesn’t try to hide that he has a disability and that makes him so much more confident.

“For me as a parent, I’m so thrilled that I can see the growth in him, and I give the credit to North Florida School because they are part of my team with James and want him to excel as well. I don’t know what his life will hold for him as he progresses, but they are there for him to back him up and I’m here for him to back him up.”

James wants to work in the cyber security field, like his older brother, Joe. He took online courses during the last two summers toward that goal.

“I like cyber security because I want to help people and make a difference in the world,” he said.

At NFSSE, James is developing an array of job skills. He works with the animals around the barn, including chickens, pigs and rabbits. He’s worked in the kitchen, where he helped prepare lunch for the students and staff.

He worked at Burlington department store, where he helped tracked inventory, and at LongHorn Steakhouse, where he helped with food preparation.

The staff at NFSSE names one student as a leader of the week. James received that award last August during his first week at the school. It weas an emotional moment for James.

“He was kind of in disbelief,” said Dawn Thomas, a transition teacher.

For good reason, too.

“It really makes me proud of myself,” James said. “I never really got any awards except maybe at summer camp.”

James said the Leader of the Week Award hangs on his bedroom wall, next to the “Thingamajig” award he won when he was 12 for building a computer out of scraps at YMCA summer camp.

It was being recognized as a leader that jump-started James’s growth at NFSEE.

“He was a pretty quiet guy when he came to visit. Very introverted, but happy. Happy to be here,” Thomas said. “He has just come out of his shell. He volunteers all the time. His occupational skills have blossomed. He’s become a people person. He has tons of friends.”

James said he would like to attend Florida State College at Jacksonville to study computer science. He admitted he needs more time in NFSSE’s transition program before he can do that.

“I can go the full length if it’s required for me to go the full length,” he said. “I want to do what’s best for me.”

Kristine is confident James is in the right setting to achieve his career goals.

“I am very, very thankful, because I never worry about James,” she said. “I know that he’s in good hands and I know that he’s making progress. Socially he’s been able to really grow. He knows himself better because they help him know himself better.

“Yes, I feel much better about his future. The fact that he has goals for himself, and he agrees to persue them and has been successful in his pursuit of them has been a wonderful thing to see.”

Roger Mooney, manager, communications, can be reached at [email protected].

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Roger Mooney