Finding independence in aisle six

Residential students at Perkins learn independent living skills everywhere, including the local grocery store

Two students and a teaching assistant cook in the Oliver Cottage kitchen.

Residential students Ethan (left) and Logan (right) cook a pasta dinner using ingredients they purchased independently.

May 16, 2017

There’s a cold drizzle in the air but Ethan, 15, and Logan, 12, are excited for their bi-weekly trip to Stop & Shop. The Perkins School for the Blind students are planning a pasta dish for later in the week, and Logan knows exactly what type of pasta he wants to purchase.

“Cavatappi,” he says firmly, buckling his seatbelt. “That’s the kind we need.”

Grocery shopping is still relatively new for both students, and there’s a lot to learn. Inside the store, teaching assistant Logan Callaghan and Assistant Coordinator of Residential Living Jimmy Bennette read prices out loud and point out useful directional clues, like the cold air emanating from the refrigerated poultry section.

In every aisle, there is a lesson to be learned: the difference between chicken breasts and chicken tenderloins, which types of onions go best in sauce, and how many tomatoes are sold in a bunch. In the produce department, Bennette shows Ethan how to pull a plastic produce bag out of the dispenser.

“It’s a downward motion to get the bag out,” he says, guiding Ethan’s hand. “Now grab the end and pull.”

Outings like this one are part of a robust residential living program at Perkins. Residential students like Ethan and Logan live in dormitories known as “cottages” on campus, where they learn how to be independent. Many students do their own laundry, shop for food and prepare simple meals.

“It’s all based on their level,” said residential living coordinator Kathy Croy, who oversees Oliver Cottage. “Some of the kids are making homemade (tomato) sauce, others are working on their toaster and microwave skills.”

As they practice being independent, residential students are learning the skills that make up the Expanded Core Curriculum (ECC) – like communication, self-determination and social interaction. These are essential life skills that sighted children learn by everyday observation, but children who are blind must be explicitly taught.

When Ethan and Logan go grocery shopping, they learn how to gather ingredients for a meal, and also how to speak to cashiers, compare prices and ask for help if they need it.

“Everyone’s talking about the ECC and there’s a reason for that,” said Rachel Dubuque, who supervises residential living in the Secondary Program. “These are crucial areas that our students need exposure to.”

At Stop & Shop, Logan uses his white cane to navigate down aisle six, where he finds a box of Cavatappi, a corkscrew-shaped pasta, for $1.49.

“That’s not a bad price,” he says, placing it in his basket.

Once their shopping is complete, Ethan and Logan pile into the Perkins van. On the ride home, students and staff banter back and forth – what songs will Ethan play on the piano tonight for his friends? Does anyone know the dates for the iHeartRadio Music Festival? When is Callaghan’s dog coming to visit?

The conversation reveals another aspect of residential living at Perkins – the strong bonds that form between staff and students. Staff members, when they’re not promoting self-sufficiency or encouraging students during moments of frustration, have been known to join in impromptu cottage dance parties, snowball fights and birthday parties.

“The genuine moments of humor and appreciation between students and staff are what stand out to me the most,” said Dubuque. “It’s a fantastic thing to see.”

In the van, the conversation turns to the planned pasta meal, which Logan and Ethan will cook in the Oliver Cottage kitchen, using the food preparation skills they’ve learned as residential students.

“I just can’t wait to eat it,” Logan announces.

Read more about residential living at Perkins in our Perspectives magazine feature story.