The Help Group’s Sunrise School has a successful job vocational program that recently expanded to a garden learning experience for students. Sunrise School Principal of more than 15 years, Sue Anne Kaples, recently took time to share with us what skills this new program teaches the students and what she hopes for the future.

Can you tell me about Sunrise School?

Sunrise School is designed to meet the needs of students with moderate to severe disabilities, typically associated with autism or an intellectual disability. The primary goal is to enable each student to realize his or her fullest potential and to become as independent as possible. The students here all have a job whether they are in kindergarten or they’re 22 years old, it’s important that they have a sense of responsibility and feel good about their work.


How does the program change as the students get older?

When students are older they work at job sites through local organizations. Right now they are working at Dollar Tree, Kmart, Sharky’s, MEND and The Rescue Mission. Their jobs include anything from stocking shelves to getting the salsa bar ready for customers. We provide jobs that are based off the students’ strengths and interests. Students are able to get real life work experience and those organizations also get jobs filled, it’s a wonderful symbiotic relationship we have with them.


On campus we have a full vocation skills lab that was established by the Looking Beyond Foundation, where the students get to do various tasks such as creating curriculum packets, copying, assembling packages to mail, creating and disseminating flyers and sometimes filling gift bags for special events. Also created by the Looking Beyond Foundation, we have a full working garden that has been supported by John Nogawski and Emily Richards Nogawski. At our “Beyond the Farm” Garden students are responsible for planting, watering, maintaining, weeding and harvesting all the vegetables grown in the garden. They then wash and clean the vegetables and deliver it to Lulu’s Café on campus and the café uses the greens for the salads they sell. It has been really wonderful to see the students enjoy this work.


What do the students learn from working in the garden?

Everything from nutrition and health to studying the weather. They go out in the morning and feel the soil and determine if it’s too dry or wet and pull shades across if it gets too hot. They also study what’s healthy to eat and what’s not, based on what they learn from the garden. A lot of the students have never seen a garden or been able to work in one because they live in the inner city. Sometimes they’ll take rosemary or something that we’ve grown in the garden home and share with their parents, which is really exciting.


That’s wonderful. Have you had any meaningful or special moments with students recently?

One of our previous students, Jake, used to work at our enclave, Kmart and used to organize the luggage department and shoe racks there. He recently moved to Louisiana and the manager from Kmart called us to ask where he was because Jake had done such a great job. Jake really loved everything being neat and orderly and kept everything lined up perfectly. The manager said things just weren’t the same without him.


A younger student of ours was also recently able to emcee our graduation using his iPad. He’s completely nonverbal, but was able to type out “welcome” to the audience and describe what was going to happen next in the show. That was super thrilling for his parents to see how capable he was.


What an incredible thing to witness. What is your hope for the future of Sunrise?

To expand upon everything and continue to improve the quality of life for our students. We want to help them to gain the greatest independence and allow them to have a life they enjoy. That can be different for every child, so we want to make sure we continue to have that flexibility of creating a program that is individual for each student.


The Help Group has incredible programs that are really tailored to meet the needs of each student and they deserve that. That, to me is everything. That special unique care from faculty and a collaborative team to support the students as they grow.