Youth Transition Program helps students with disabilities prepare for a careerAt home, Jesse Hakanson disassembles and reassembles stereos, TVs and lawn mowers for fun. But at Hauer's Lawn Care and Equipment in Astoria he practices wielding a wrench for work experience.

On Wednesday Hakanson was taking apart a rototiller engine so the parts could be cleaned and reused. He worked in a back room smelling slightly of grease, gas and engine oil, and was surrounded by lawn mowers caked with dry grass. He reached for a tool so he could remove an air filter.

"Much of it you just find the right socket and turn it," he said shyly, his speech impediment coming out. "I'm basically teaching myself."

Hakanson, 16, is a student at Warrenton High School and part of the Youth Transition Program (YTP), an Educational Service District program designed to help students with documented disabilities.

The program teaches students employability skills - everything from how to create a resume to the necessity of showing up to work on time - and helps them gain real skills to be competitive.

"It's difficult for everyone to find a job, much less if you have a learning disability," said transitions specialist Annie Wood, who helps run the program in Warrenton and Seaside high schools.

About 19 students are involved in the program, however there is room for 25.

The students have a variety of disabilities including Attention Deficit Disorder, depression, anxiety, mild autism, mild retardation and bipolar disorder, however all are considered high-functioning.

Wood said the students are capable of a variety of jobs, from pouring concrete, to filing, to answering phones, to doing customer service.

One student is passionate about gardening, and another student wants to be a kennel groomer's assistant.

"Being a kennel assistant or groomer's assistant is a skill, plus it gives them an opportunity for a letter of reference," Wood said.

That letter of reference is important because the idea of the program is to help students make connections and learn long-term skills. Their work experiences can help them avoid becoming reliant on social programs later down the road.

Tristan Elfering, 21, participated in the Youth Transition Program when he was at Warrenton High School. He's now at Tongue Point Job Corps Center in the electrical trades program.

Elfering, who is mildly autistic, worked for two months in a fish cannery in Alaska as part of the program. That job, along with working at a cannery in Astoria, taught him many things he couldn't learn in school, he said. Punctuality was one of those skills.

"I had to wake up early in the morning, like around 4:30 or 6:30 a.m.," he said. "They would come in with loads of fish and they would have to processed right now. I learned about how to be able to work an 8-hour day, to work full-time and to be able to function during that time. And I learned about how to deal with other people."

He said the classroom training in interviewing and letter writing was valuable because it gave him a heads up on knowing what he needed to do to get a job.

"There are just some things you don't pick up on naturally and the YTP program helps you out a little," he said.

He said that without the work experiences in his younger years he would be kind of clueless about what employers expect.

"I would know what I needed to do but not know how to do it," he said. "It was really beneficial for me."

Wood said she has eight students ready to be placed in businesses but is having a hard time finding spots for them.

"I don't know if it's the stigma of disabilities or the fear of taking on a teenager," she said.

However, Hauers had no such fears. Owner Ed Hauer said he has often invited students from local high schools to get their hands dirty in his shop.

"It's a way to introduce students whose interests are not being piqued by other education subjects," he said. "... Sometimes I find people with some other disabilities can focus more on what they like to do."