PMHS Students and the Rockbridge Occupational Center
Jennifer Balkey, a teacher at Parry McCluer High School, teaches finance and marketing classes. Twice a month, however, she gives a special lesson on compassion, friendship, and personal growth when she takes her students to meet with the employees at the Rockbridge Area Occupational Center located in Buena Vista. RAOC is a non-profit organization that gives gainful employment to physically, emotionally, or intellectually handicapped residents by offering services that include bulk shredding, yard maintenance, and assembly projects for both organizations of all kinds and industry. RAOC, however, also gives their employees, who otherwise might have little opportunity for social interaction, both a sense of belonging and a chance to meet new people. Balkey’s classes answer the need for that kind of interaction and have brought a wealth of enthusiasm, acceptance, and a new opportunity to learn to the RAOC employees.
In talking to the students, however, it quickly becomes apparent that both students and employees find meaning in these interactions. One student, Jennifer Brotherson states, “I feel like coming to RAOC lets us share our talents, but also to show our appreciation for the people who are employed by RAOC. We are helping people who might otherwise be over-looked.” Another student, Trey Dudley, commented that “It’s nice to help people who don’t have people who help them on a regular basis. But we learn something, too, when we come to RAOC.” Jennifer Balkey, it should be noted, is the kind of teacher who serves as a role model in that she practices what she teaches; she also serves on the Board of Directors of RAOC.
Balkey, whose enthusiasm and commitment have propelled this program, explained that “The PMHS marketing students have enjoyed a working relationship with the employees at RAOC this school year. Each month, the students are able to share time with the people at RAOC. They focus on a specific lesson each month: spelling, math, cultural diversity, computer skills, nutrition, etc. Following each lesson, time is spent together working on puzzles, art skills, hygiene, or simply sitting down and taking the time for one-on-one conversation. Both the marketing students and I look forward to these sessions as everyone has formed an incredible bond. It is time well spent and enjoyed by all. Lessons are learned, and social skills are emphasized.”
Roy Funkhouser, the Executive Director of RAOC, said that value of the high school visits becomes apparent when he witnesses employees who are not often talkative or animated become fully engaged in conversation, laughing, smiling, and having a wonderful time. He noted that the employees take great pride in introducing the students who work with them as ‘my friend’.
Funkhouser added that he hopes that members of the community who have the time, the compassion, and willingness to make new friends call RAOC at 261-6159 to learn more about becoming a volunteer and to perhaps set up a time to visit the facility. He also suggested that there might be social, service, or church organizations that would consider making RAOC an out-reach project and said that he thinks that any volunteer will quickly feel that their time was well spent, whether it’s once a week or once a month. He also stressed that, as much as possible, scheduling would be based on the convenience of the volunteer. RAOC employees, he said, are “special in their heightened appreciation of friendship, their genuine kindness, and in the strength and courage with which they face each day”. Jennifer Balkey and her students can think of themselves as excellent examples of people who have found a worthwhile way to use some of their time and energy to help those who simply need companionship and a little extra caring.