Westwood High program helps students in many ways The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Westwood High program helps students in many ways

February 18th, 2021 Mesa Tribune Staff
Westwood High program helps students in many ways

By Kevin Pirehpour
Tribune Staff Writer

A Mesa high school is helping students gain work experience on campus while it connects needy families with basic necessities donated by local businesses.

Thanks to sizable donations from Amazon and other businesses, the Working Warriors program at Westwood High School offers students class credit and experience working at the on-campus donation center, which offers necessities to families facing economic hardship. 

Organizers of the program are now hoping to expand it to other Mesa high schools and are hoping more local businesses jump on board to help.

The students, who call themselves Working Warriors, and program directors aim to help as many vulnerable classmates and families by getting basic necessities to them through a safe, confidential experience. 

“We have the potential to be serving the entire community and really have this be a program where any student here can be learning these job skills while serving the community,” said Daniel Becker, applied learning teacher at Westwood and Working Warriors coordinating director.

“We just really want to continue growing its impact and growing the number of students here that can be part of it,” he said.

After Mesa Public Schools’ success with distributing thousands of meals and books to kids who need them, district administrators proposed a new program to get basic necessities, such as laundry detergent and disinfectant spray, into the hands of families who can’t afford them.

So, in October 2019, a small team at Westwood organized the on-campus distribution center.

“It kind of started from an idea and then we’ve built it up to where it is now,” said Wendy Clifford, program director and individualized instruction site leader at Westwood. “Now we’re getting a lot more shipments.”

More shipments meant more hands-on experience for students and goods for needy families in the community. 

Today, the program serves around 10-15 families per day through a confidential service available in-person and delivery.

The program offers a range of goods – from cleaning products to hygiene products to baby supplies – mostly donated by Amazon that may have been returned, lightly damaged or overstocked.

“The work we’re doing really lends itself well to the kind of conditions that we’re working under as part of safety because the deliveries and pick-ups can be contactless,” Becker said. “We’re not actually taking any additional risks.”

Clifford explained that sometimes the students whose families need such items are “not real open initially, so we want to make a system where it’s just kind of like a secret shopper – We’re just giving you what you need and we don’t need to know who you are.”

“We have counselors here that we connect with other agencies too,” she added. “To really make the practice of what public schools are supposed to be – a resource for our community.”

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of families reaching out to the donation center for support has steadily increased because many have experienced recent job losses and can’t afford to purchase basic essentials, Clifford said.

“You don’t think about how expensive those items are,” Clifford said. 

The program is run by students with varying learning capabilities who stock goods and coordinate with families to
fill orders. 

It’s designed to create a “seamless transition program from school to work,” said Clifford.

“Not all kids necessarily are going to go straight into the college plan and college pathway,” Clifford said. “Some kids are going to go straight into what we call ‘workplace, readiness programs’ – preparing for life after high school.”

About 16 percent of high school students with a disability continue their studies and earn a bachelor’s degree, compared to about 34 percent who do not identify with a disability and earn a bachelor’s degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 20 percent of students with a disability have less than a high school diploma. 

At Westwood High School, about 550 students, or about 17 percent of the student population, have Individualized Education Plans and the on-site training for those enrolled in Working Warriors has already started to land them jobs at places like Amazon and Instacart, Clifford said. 

To help create a “real-life” work experience, program leaders want to form partnerships with local businesses and organize exercises, such as mock interviews to prepare students for life after high school, Clifford said. 

The program then becomes an educational experience that will not only benefit students but also businesses looking for qualified job applicants. 

“When they get employed, they don’t leave places, they really don’t,” Clifford said. “They’re loyal employees and they’re very proud.”

To match growing demand and reach more families, program leaders are looking to expand to more schools and are asking for more business to get involved. 

Businesses or organizations interested in getting involved or create partnerships opportunities can contact Martin Appel at mmappel@mpsaz.org.

“We want to eventually be sort of a hub where we’re delivering to all of the schools in the area in a lot of community organizations,” Becker said. “So, we’re expanding those partnerships and we would like to expand our capacity to receive and process more items, possibly from more donors than just Amazon.” 

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