The smell of baking brownies filled McAllen ISD’S STRIDES cottage at Achieve Early College High School on Tuesday morning.

The brownies were being baked by members of STRIDES, a program founded by the district earlier this year that’s designed to teach students with mental and physical disabilities the skills they need to live independently and find a career in the workforce.

Dubbed STRIDES, Supported Transition and Road to Independence: Development and Employments for Students instructs students between the ages of 18 and 22.

The brownies students baked Tuesday, under the guidance of their instructors, are an example of the basic cooking skills taught at the STRIDES cottage, a portable building outfitted with a full kitchen, a bedroom and grooming room.

In the kitchen, students learn basic cooking and safety skills. In the bedroom, they learn how to make a bed. In the grooming room, girls learn how to care for their nails, and boys learn how to shave. There’s a washer and dryer where students learn how to do laundry.

Program coordinator Josie Reyes said that learning those skills in a safe, supportive environment can deeply impact the students’ quality of life.

“These skills will help them live as independently as possible, to the best of their abilities, and they’re skills that will let them help out at home if they need to live at home,” she said. “Most of our students will live with family or friends for as long as they can. What we try to do is keep them out of institutional settings.”

Reyes said students in the program are selected from a few schools in the district based on their level of disability.

McAllen ISD STRIDES building at the Achieve Early College High School on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmatinez@themonitor.com)

“A lot of them have intellectual disabilities,” she said. “Some of them have health impairments, like seizure disorders, and some of them were just born with some type of chromosomal disorder, and intellectual disability comes along with that kind of affliction.”

In addition to learning basic life skills, a partnership between the district and STC allows the program’s students to become certified in one of three areas: beginning photography, basic cake decorating and basic floral design.

Centerpieces and wreaths created by the students in the floral design class have become particularly popular.

“Within our district we have a lot of demand for these arrangements they’re making,” Reyes said. “Parents are just snatching them up as fast as they can.”

Kevin De Los Santos, a special education teacher and one of Tuesday’s brownie baking instructors, says the demand for the arrangements illustrates the students’ potential to be gainfully employed one day.

“The goal is, for our higher functioning kids, for them to get a job,” he said. “We do floral design every day. The reason we sell them is so we can get money back to keep making more. The more we do it, the more they sharpen their skills and get better at it, so that’s the whole point.”

De Los Santos says that although the program only started this semester, he’s already noticed a shift in the students’ attitudes.

“As soon as they get dropped off you see that smile on their face, like they’re ready to come, they’re ready to learn stuff and do fun stuff, they’re enthusiastic,” he said. “That’s great for us, because it creates a happy atmosphere.”

Jae Gully, 19, suffers from cerebral palsy and an intellectual disability. Gully’s mother, Michelle Gully, said there’s been a noticeable change in Jae’s attitude since she joined STRIDES.

A table is neatly place in the McAllen ISD STRIDES classes at the Achieve Early College High School on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmatinez@themonitor.com)

“It encouraged her to be a little more open and experience new things, to try new things,” Michelle said, adding that without STRIDES, Jae would’ve stayed in high school until she was 21, but likely wouldn’t have put that time to good use.

“This program is just such a blessing,” she said. “Without STRIDES, she would’ve stayed at McHi, and there wasn’t much left for her to learn there. It would have basically been like staying at daycare. It’s so important for these kids to move on, and find out that there’s so much out there.”

Reyes, the STRIDES coordinator, said the program is only the second of its kind in the Valley. She said it’s been busy, and she expects it to grow.

“There’s buses coming and going all day long,” she said. “Right now we’re at 48 students; we’re projecting to have about 60 next years.”

According to Reyes, the program has been a team effort on the part of the community.

“It wouldn’t be possible without the board, the McAllen ISD board and our superintendent,” she said. “None of this would be possible without our community.”