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Opportunities Await Special Graduate Ready to Face the World

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WENDELL — A gold medal is the big prize at the Special Olympics World Games. When the flame is extinguished there are bigger goals that lie ahead for the athletes and others with mental and physical disabilities: a job, a paycheck, and independence.

Willie Walters of Knightdale wants all those things. As a high school senior about to graduate, this is the year he faces the world.

"Willie gets excited about any event," says Becky Barbee, a special education teacher at East Wake High School. "Anything that gets him out and about, meeting and talking to people. That excites him and he's ready for it."

This is the last year Walters will compete in the Wake County Special Olympics. He is 20 years old, a senior in the special education program at East Wake High School and ready to graduate.

"He could stay in school until he's 21 but he's graduating because he's learned all he can in school," says Ron Walters of his son.

Willie has autism; a communication and behavioral disorder.

"His memory, he can remember anything anybody tells him. Sometimes he sits there and I think too much is coming in at one time," says Barbee.

In the Special Ed program, instruction is geared toward preparing students for independent living. Some skills are taught in the classroom; other skills can only come with job experience.

Two days a week, for just a few hours, Walters reports to work.

"I separate the silver ware," he explains.

A transition program in theWake County School Systemworks with several area businesses arranging job training opportunities for Special Ed students.

"I like to work here," says Walters. "I get to eat for free."

For many, this training turns into a job with a paycheck. Every job is an opportunity for these young adults to build self-confidence and to prove they have the desire and ability to achieve.

Walters has the desire as well as a big cheering section on his side.

"I think Willie can do anything he wants to," says his mom, Brenda. "In fact, I think I have higher hopes for him than anybody else. I think there's something out there that Willie can do that nobody else can. I really believe that."

These games are a lot like this stage of Willie Walter's life.

"This has been his whole life in training for this," says Ron Walters.

Willie Walters may not finish first, but he is eager to be in the game.

"It's exactly what their oath says," says Brenda Walters. "It's 'Let me win, but if I cannot win let me be brave in the attempt.'"

There are a growing number of job opportunities for people like Willie Walters once they leave school.

Life Experiences in Cary employs adults with mental disabilities and is preparing to expand to a second location in Cary's Prestonwood area.

Several stores, restaurants and businesses contract with Life Experiences for baked goods, alfalfa sprouts and janitorial services. They also operate a thrift shop.

There is a waiting list of people wanting to work at Life Experiences. When the expansion is complete by next year, they hope to increase their number of employees from 24 to 50.

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Rick Armstrong, Reporter
Rick Armstrong, Photographer
Michelle Singer, Web Editor

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