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The Learning Network- A Vibrant Learning Community

If you walk into the Jones Brothers building these days, you will notice a buzz of activities every time.  People could be collecting cloths for donation, cooking, playing cards, or actively engaging in life-skills classes throughout the bottom floor.  You will also notice lots of great artwork displayed on the walls.  This is all part of the Learning Network, a day program through WCMHS’s Community Developmental Services (CDS) Division. 

The Learning Network has been at the Jones Brothers location for three years now after outgrowing its original location at the CDS Granview building.   At this point, Joe Mahr, the Learning Network team leader, would like to see the program access a new space that is more conducive to the various needs of the individuals served by the Learning Network. The Learning Network originally was created to find a way to serve individuals who had previously been served by one-on-one providers through CDS, but due to budget reductions, those services had been discontinued.  The Learning Network became a day program that offered supports Monday through Friday from 8:30-2:00 year round, essentially following the Barre City school district schedule.  The program became an essential ingredient to programming success for the Developmentally Delayed population, and it continues to flourish in this role today.

Programming for the Learning Network is divided into two tracks. One, informally termed Transitional track, is for the population who want and need to develop and continue to work on the skills to find employment, independent housing, and greater independence in general.   The other track is geared towards individuals, who due either to chronological age or a more complicated degree of need, will not seek employment or independent housing options.  For this group, the Learning Network functions as an essential outlet for socialization, belonging, and good old fun through their days. Scheduling at the Learning Network includes three blocks daily, each lasting for one and a quarter hours, with lunch included.   Each block consists of three classes, two of which are life-skills based and a third and permanent option, called Studio.   Learning NetworkStudio is an open session that is available to anyone from both tracks, and is offered as an opportunity to enjoy art, music, and other creative outlets.    According to Joe Mahr, “Sometimes folks just want to do something creative, and the atmosphere in the Studio gets very focused and Zen-like when people are really enjoying their work.”   Some of the class offered in the Transitional track include Practical Math and World Religions.  The Learning Network has five instructors and two one-on-one providers for the clients who need more support. 

Learning Network artThe Learning Network has produced some fantastic initiatives over the years, one of the most successful being the Shockwave art project.  Shockwave is the brainchild of Mary Blake, a previous employee with the Learning Network.  Shockwave began as a magazine which captured all the amazing artwork that people were creating in their time at the Learning Network.  Recently, Shockwave transitioned into a digital medium, and the Learning Network's Facebook page features all this artwork. Walter Walt and Wendy Capobianco are currently stewarding the continuation of Shockwave. The crew has put together some art shows, including one at Bagitos last June which was very successful. Learning Network The proceeds from this and other shows/events can either go directly to the individual who created the artwork or it can be put back into the general Shockwave funds to purchase more materials.  One summer, a consumer was invited to the 40th Anniversary of the Americans with Disability Act celebration in Boston to be recognized for their fantastic artwork featured in Shockwave.  This honor was an appropriate tribute to a very dedicated and talented individual.

Another project the Learning Network crew just completed was creating posters for the WCMHS Green Team.  When this request was made, the team immediately got busy with the task at hand.  However, something much greater than the creation of the posters emerged from the process.   Joe Mahr states, “We were very task driven at the start of this project, but the process allowed for so many learning moments and engaging conversations, that I really felt everyone involved learned a lot about things beyond recycling.”   The discussions around which materials could and could not be recycled led to some discrepancies between objects marked as recyclable and what the solid waste district recommendations stated.  This provided a great opportunity for those involved to practice navigating the “grays” of the real world with the support of great staff and peers, and this yielded some useful insights.   This is what Joe and his team hope will happen daily, and at the Learning Network this is usually the case!

Learning NetworkAs stated earlier, the Learning Network follows a school year schedule with four quarters, three of which are course based and one summer quarter which is primarily focused on community based experiences and an emphasis on fun.  The Learning Network does several big field trips each summer, including one to Salisbury Beach.  The crew also visits one state park each week with various activities available for everyone according to their abilities and wishes.  Structured classes still take place two days each week allowing for consistency and predictability, which is important for the therapeutic aspects of programming. 

Although the Learning Network is a day program, and therefore not the program for primary case management, providers participate in each client’s yearly Individual Support Agreement (ISA), in which goals and objectives are discussed and agreed upon with the client and their family. The ISA process ensures that the most effective services are being offered to help each client live as full a life as possible.  Ultimately, the Learning Network strives to help each individual experience as much independence and community as possible. 

Learning NetworkThe Learning Network continues to work with the Results Based Accountability process to create effective ways to track this success beyond the frequent positive stories emerging from their work. The graph shown here demonstrates consistent consumer participation over the past several years. The team always strives to make sure they are encouraging and challenging their patrons while also offering an empathetic and welcoming environment to all involved.  Joe Mahr envisions a day when all the CDS day programs, including United Employment Services (UES) and the Supportive Apartment Program (SAP), are housed under one roof and actively engaged collaboratively with the consumers to create enjoyable and enriched lives.

For any questions about the Learning Network at Washington County Mental Health Services, please call (802) 479-5012 *565 or email Joseph Mahr at josephm@wcmhs.org.


Written 6/2015

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