By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great local journalism.
Students get lesson in L.I.F.E.
Siemens Project Life 2 es
Nathan Hudgins washes dishes Tuesday afternoon at Siemens. - photo by Emily Saunders
Nathan Hudgins isn’t just the dish washer.

He lends a hand with cooking duties, has helped serve food and “at one point, I was actually the full-time pastry cook here.”

“I’m creative with it,” he said. “I’m like an artiste. I like putting my own unique style to the food.”

Hudgins, 21, is one of Aramark’s newest employees. The company provides cafeteria and catering services for the Siemens facility in south Forsyth.

But Hudgins wasn’t recruited by Aramark. He was discovered through Project L.I.F.E, or Learning Independence for Future Employment.

The program, now in its second year with Siemens, gives on-the-job training to Forsyth County’s special needs students.

The program’s lead teacher, Helen Lane, said students work for Siemens, as well as its subcontracted service companies, like Aramark, Hill Park custodial services and Canon mail room service.

“We’re running and gunning all day long,” she said. “The students are here every day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. It’s very much like a work situation.

“It’s more like a post-graduate class. A lot of the kids that come to the class have already graduated from high school. It’s a transition between your high school year and when you’re actually going to work. We realized that there was a gap.”

The program is open to any special needs student enrolled in the school system. Because the training is unpaid, students are referred to as interns though some, like Hudgins, have been taken on as paid employees after graduating.

Hudgins helps train Alex Merritt, 18, a former home-schooler whose parents enrolled him in the local public school system just for Project L.I.F.E.

“I thought it was going to be hard, but he actually makes it real easy. He’s cool,” said Hudgins of his protégé. “I tell you one thing, he doesn’t like doing dishes.”

Merritt’s dislike of dishwashing is a well-known fact around the kitchen, joked Gail Chapin, food service manager. But Merritt’s outgoing
personality makes him a perfect fit for the food service line.

“Alex feeds off of people,” she said. “Each individual has different likes and dislikes ... and in my line of business, it takes all kinds of people. They all have things to give us.”

Chapin said one of her favorite things about the program is the visible changes she sees in the students during the year. One started off with a negative outlook and was reluctant to do some of the tasks.

“We didn’t know if she would make it last year,” Chapin said. “The maturity and confidence she’s gained throughout the year, this year she came back a totally different person. We saw a whole new side of her that we didn’t know.”

The interns make rounds through the various companies, taking on jobs from sorting and delivering packages to deep cleaning.

“Unfortunately [recently], I had to clean the bathrooms and do the mail ... they gave me a lot to mail,” Merritt said. “I like the cafeteria. People are nice to me that work here.”

Karis Scott, who manages the Canon site in Siemens, said the job can be daunting, but the interns pick it up quickly.

Having never worked with special needs students before, Scott admitted “at first I was nervous.”

“But once you get to know the students — oh my gosh, they’re awesome,” she said “And they’re just like anybody else that you would work with.
They’re bright kids, they just have a little disability, but they’re very smart.”

In addition to job training, the interns also receive instruction on having a positive attitude, being on time and other skills.

While the interns float between different companies and tasks, when there’s a good match, the student can stay.

When Hudgins helped Aramark cater an event at Northside Hospital-Forsyth, that’s when he realized food was his forte. His job with Aramark is a stepping stone to one day making his living as a chef.

“Hopefully, I’m going to be cooking,” he said. “This is just like a temporary position for me.

“You got to start small.”