INSPIRE School students take the reins at Hillside Pizza

  • Dallin Bramwell of The INSPIRE School for Autism takes orders at Hillside Pizza in Bernardston. April 11, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Caleb Stevens of The I.N.S.P.i.R.E. School for Autism cuts a pizza under the supervision of Craig White, co-owner of Hillside Pizza in Bernardston. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Kyle Simpson of The INSPIRE School for Autism makes change for a customer at Hillside Pizza in Bernardston. April 11, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz

  • Dallin Bramwell, Caleb Stevens, Tony Hollenbeck, Alex LeBlond and Kyle Simpson of The INSPIRE School for Autism are working at Hillside Pizza in Bernardston. April 11, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz—Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Published: 4/11/2017 9:28:18 PM

BERNARDSTON — Hillside Pizza of Bernardston bustled with activity Tuesday afternoon. Dishes clanged, guests chatted and five of the pizza shop’s newest staff members were busy greeting customers, taking orders and preparing food.

The five smiling faces were all teenage students of The I.N.S.P.i.R.E. School for Autism, a Brattleboro, Vt. school servicing autistic students ages 7 to 22 from Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. From noon to 1:30 p.m., the students were paid to oversee the restaurant’s complete operation, with some supervision from school staff and Hillside Pizza co-owner Craig White.

“The hope is for these kids to have some sort of vocational skills when they graduate and be active members of society,” said White, who is also one of the founders of The I.N.S.P.i.R.E. School.

White said the school opened 10 years ago, with he and two other co-founders striving to provide an alternative form of education for students with autism. Most of the school’s students, he said, stay with The I.N.S.P.i.R.E. School for a few years before returning to the mainstream school system.

“A friend of mine had a son with autism that was having a hard time getting his needs met,” White said. “So we just created this school and we started to offer a different way for these kids.”

Part of that “different way” means offering opportunities to gain vocational skills through activities like jewelry making, landscaping, custodial work and food service. So, years ago, White began inviting the students to oversee all aspects of opening a restaurant using Hillside Pizza as a learning platform. However, due in part to a lack of teenage students, it is something White hasn’t done for three years — until now.

“We’re trying to revive it and then actually expand to new businesses that would allow us to do on-the-job training with these kids,” I.N.S.P.i.R.E. School Executive Director Troy Kennett said.

Though Bernardston’s Hillside Pizza isn’t traditionally open on Tuesdays, it was this week, and will be going forward, with the exception of April 18, due to school vacation.

Primarily, Kennett said working at Hillside Pizza helps the students improve their executive functioning skills, or “the ability to keep things in order and focus on multiple tasks at the same time.” Plus, going from the classroom to a workplace setting allows them to interact with unfamiliar people, which can be a learning opportunity in itself, Kennett said.

“A lot of our students can interact with familiar people but get very nervous when they meet new people,” he said.

After their first day on the job, the students, too, agreed interacting with customers was an important part of their learning.

“I feel I’ve learned some people skills,” said 17-year-old Dallin Bramwell, an I.N.S.P.i.R.E. School student from West Chesterfield, N.H., who acted as greeter, cashier and waiter.

“He opened up,” Kennett said of another student, 18-year-old Alex LeBlond of Claremont, N.H., who helped with food preparation. “Now he can share his personality with more people.”

Before Tuesday, the students spent hours at Hillside Pizza, learning how to make every wrap, pizza and salad ordinarily served at the restaurant, producing individual task lists for themselves and conducting trial runs before staff and other I.N.S.P.i.R.E. School students.

For LeBlond, salad preparation was the most difficult part, due to a number of ingredients that need to be organized “just right.” To master it, he took home and memorized a list of the ingredients.

“After a while I got used to it and it came to me,” LeBlond said of the salad making and his other tasks at Hillside Pizza.

“It’s easy flow, you know, once you learn,” LeBlond continued, adding of White and the school staff, “They’re very nice to teach you and kindhearted to go out of their way to help you.”

Both LeBlond and Bramwell said they would be interested in continuing their work in the food service industry, at Hillside Pizza and beyond.

“It’d be something I’d love to do in the future,” LeBlond said.

You can reach Shelby Ashline at: sashline@recorder.com

413-772-0261, ext. 257


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