By Krista Cascio

For the past 30 years, Cape Cod Community College (4Cs) has hosted a vocational program which aims to lead those who are cognitively different to succeed outside of the classroom. In a program called Project Forward, atypical students of 4Cs explore their way through a 2-year process, ultimately choosing a work-field or career path. With completion of the program, and with the help of their ‘work-coaches’, Director of Project Forward Dr. Heather Bish-Martin and P/T Instructor Elizabeth “Betty” Densmore, the students of Project Forward go out into the community to seek employment.

Bish-Martin radiates positivity when interviewed about Project Forward, and the programs extensions like the Seashore Café. Initially interviewed back in September about the Seashore Café, Bish-Martin told the story of Project Forward, disclosing the network that the program and all its worksites make up.

“[Densmore is] a pioneer in supporting people with disabilities on the cape,” said Bish-Martin.

“The first year, our students try six different exploratory programs,” said Bish-Martin. Some of these exploratory programs include landscaping, retail, hospitality and animal care. One of these exploratory programs is Café Operations, taught by Densmore. In this course students experience a hands-on learning style which includes role play exercises.

“They love role-play,” said Densmore as she looks on the students with a heartwarming expression, teaching the students how to set a table and how to be a waitress with proper restaurant etiquette. The students share a laugh together as they pretend to cook for the customers and as they find their way through the territory of waitressing and hosting.

“After they try all these courses, in their second year they choose which course they want to focus on,” said Bish-Martin.

The students begin attending their internship at what Project Forward calls “worksites”, where they clock 50 hours per year as part of the criteria. Students in the Animal Care Program will go to a worksite at Cranberry Sunset Farm or the MSPCA, students in the Hospitality Program go to the worksite at the Cape Codder Resort, and students in the Café Operations program work right here at 4Cs, typically surpassing the requirement of 50 hours per year due to the convenience.

At the end of the 2 year program, students of Project Forward have a graduation ceremony just like the mainstream students at 4Cs have with the completion of their Associates degree. They enjoy a ceremony in full regalia with a commencement speaker and caps and gowns.

From there, the students take what they’ve learned and put it back into the community.

“I get emails from other students who have gone back to California or Chicago or whatever, and they have jobs as cashiers,” said Densmore. “They were Riverview students,” who, according to Densmore, can come from all over the world. “So, we request that if they get a job that they let us know.”

Densmore has been with Project Forward since 1987. Taking a brief hiatus in 1997 to work with Life Inc, another program for disabled adults before returning to the college in 2001.

“My goal is to make them work-ready,” said Densmore. “It’s very satisfying to see probably 17 or 18 cashiers in this area alone. I can go out into the community and see all my students.”

Densmore goes on to talk about two of her previous students who work at the 99 Restaurant, and one of her students who has worked at Stop & Shop for 15 years.

“We’re real proud of them,” said Densmore.

A lot of times, students come into Project Forward with the preconceived idea that they cannot succeed or they can’t be independent, but at Project Forward- the message is clear.

“[Students of Project Forward can be] put on tracks or the adults in their life have told them you can’t,” said Bish-Martin. “Our philosophy is yes you can.”

“I’ve found that my students have these vast abilities to do all these different things,” said Bish-Martin. “And it’s not always recognized or seen, because first a person may see the disability on the student, and so I think it’s important that we recognize that although a student might look like they have a disability—that it’s really just a different ability and recognizing that it’s really important to support each other. I think that every single person wants to find meaning in their life. I think the difference with a person with a disability or a more intellectually impaired individual is that they’re often put on tracks…When we say the word ‘disability’, we kind of think of it as a disadvantage—‘dis’, is that word that has a negative connotation.”

The goal of Project Forward is to gift these students with confidence and the skills to become independent. Students enter the program with little to no knowledge on how to get a job and more importantly, “how to keep the job” said Densmore.

Bish-Martin has several ideas that she would like to introduce in the Project Forward Program and integrate into the 4Cs population like installing a laundry facility or a pet grooming worksite.

“What we’re trying to work towards is having various opportunities on campus, said Bish-Martin.  “I would love to see, in our life fitness center someday, a laundry facility.” She goes on to explain the cost benefit of a laundry worksite on campus for, and what a great benefit it would be for students to be able to do their laundry for a lower price.

“So students who are living independently can get their laundry done while they’re in class. I would like to see a lot more of that symbiotic relationship,” said Bish-Martin.

The relationship Bish-Martin refers to is the one between uniquely-abled students and neurotypical students; or as both Bish-Martin and Densmore say, ‘mainstream’ students.

“I like the mainstream students to recognize that students with disabilities can support them,” said Bish-Martin.

These opportunities on campus would afford the program the means to create more scholarships that they can award to uniquely-abled people who may not be able to afford the Project Forward program. Currently, the Seashore Café bears the weight of the scholarships, that is, if they profit from their semester’s sales.

Aside from the sales of the café itself, the students walk away at the end of the semester with tips that they can decide what to do with. Betty Densmore says

Densmore said, “I ask them what they would like to do with their tips and I give them suggestions, one of those suggestions is the scholarship. They were thrilled with the fact that they could donate one of their tips to the students who could not afford to come [to Project Forward].”

She described the students as ‘almost in tears’ due the gratitude they felt towards Project Forward and couldn’t stand that because of money others couldn’t be a part of the program.

According to Bish-Martin, it costs $2,250 per semester for a student to attend Project Forward.

“That could be detrimental to community students who can’t afford that,” said Bish-Martin.

Fortunately, Project Forward has recently been recognized by the federal government and has gained such a status within the educational system that it allows students who meet the criteria, access to Pell grants; affording them the opportunity to have a place in the program.

Students in the program are surrounded by support from their peers and mentors making Project Forward an incredible opportunity for those who function and learn alternatively to others.

Photo of Amanda Fischer, Jen Davoli, Natalie Patterson and Meagan Snyder by Krista Cascio