Cooper Home transitional learning program honors graduates with drive-by celebration

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Tears of joy flowed down Kaeda MacMillan’s face Friday as she smiled and waved to a caravan of vehicles passing by her home in southwest Fort Collins while drivers honked horns, and passengers waved signs and shouted out congratulations.

MacMillan, who was seated in a chair on her front lawn alongside her grandparents, parents, siblings and a few other friends and neighbors, was overcome with emotion during the drive-by parade for her and four graduates of the Cooper Home. The program, run by the Poudre School District, helps 18- to 21-year-olds with mild to moderate developmental disabilities transition into everyday life by teaching independent living and career skills.

The parade began at the Midtown Fort Collins Cooper Home, with 14 cars and one motorcycle, and ended with even more at MacMillan’s home. It passed by the home of one graduate in north Fort Collins, one in Wellington, one in Timnath and one in southeast Fort Collins along the way.

The vehicles were decorated with messages painted on the windows, signs, balloons and streamers. Honorees and their families waited eagerly on front porches or in their front yards to see their fellow students and their families, as well as their teachers and other staff from the Cooper Home, in person for the first time in two months.

“It makes me really, really happy,” MacMillan said after the parade passed by and she had received balloons, cards and a celebratory cake that Cooper Home teacher Gayna Jobe dropped off at each of the homes as the caravan passed.

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Amanda MacMillan, Kaeda’s mother, said her daughter has been visiting with classmates in the school’s online video classes and meetings. But it wasn’t nearly the same as seeing them in person again for the first time since the school transitioned along with the rest of those in the Poudre School District to remote instruction following spring break.

“She’s been here at the house since before spring break,” Amanda MacMillan said. “She hasn’t gone anywhere or seen anybody, so this is nice for her.”

Amanda MacMillan and other parents expressed their gratitude not just for the staff’s ability to put together a celebratory send-off, but for everything the program has done for their children and their families.

There were 21 students at Cooper Home this past school year, said Jobe, who helped launch the program in 2008 and has been involved in it ever since. She’s the only teacher, but she has help from paraprofessionals and interns from Colorado State University. And most important of all, she said, is the support from the entire community, including more than a dozen local businesses that offer the internships that are such an important part of the program.

Bill Garren, 21, is the second of Peggy Garren’s children to benefit from the program. He had several internships while he was at Cooper Home and has a new job waiting for him at Dellenbach Motors, he said.

“It’s a great program,” Peggy Garren said. “It gives him confidence to go out and try things, especially their internships. They get to know they can do a job, and they’re not going to fail at it.

“And they teach them things they don’t even teach in regular high schools anymore: budgeting, dealing with money and things like that. It’s awesome. They’ve also taught them cooking, and things like that. It gives them real-life experience before they actually have to go out and do it.”

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Graduate Robert Stone, 20, has a job lined up, as well, at Colorado Youth Outdoors. He had an internship that he began through the Alternative Cooperative Education Program at Fossil Ridge High School doing custodial work at Boltz Middle School and said that experience helped him land his new job.

He also learned to cook and regularly helps his parents prepare meals. He even takes charge sometimes and grills his favorite food: hamburgers.

“We focus on daily living, independent living; accessing the city on the bus, employment, functional academics, social and emotional health and recreational and leisure activities,” Jobe said.

 “We just want to help them become active members of the community.”

Coloradoan reporter Kelly Lyell can be reached by email at kellylyell@coloradoan.com, You can follow him on Twitter @KellyLyell and find him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/KellyLyell.news. Help support Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a subscription today

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