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Special School District of St. Louis County
Former Student Gives Back by Mentoring

Aristotle, considered the father of science, made contributions to the world that still have lasting effects to this day. Yet, without his mentor, Plato, it is impossible to know if he would have made the impact he did. The mentor-protégé relationship is nothing new; and passing down information from person to person is a fundamental aspect of learning. At St. Mary’s Health Center, the mentor-protégé method is alive and well.

Two pharmacy technicians there, Mike Walker and Clarence Ray, have developed a great relationship where knowledge is passed from one to the other. Clarence is a student in SSD’s Vocational Skills Program (VSP), and is learning the ropes in the St. Mary’s pharmacy department.

A year ago, Mike was in the same position—a student learning the finer points of being a pharmacy technician. He quickly excelled at the position, learning the skills needed around the hospital, and gained other outside skills like improved communication, relationship building and personal transportation. St. Mary’s hired him in October 2013. A year later, Clarence began at St. Mary’s. And when he needed to be trained, it became apparent that Mike was in a unique position to guide Clarence, having been in his position just one year prior.

“It has been cool to see Mike go from part time to full time in less than a year and then be able to have that maturity and growth to teach someone whose shoes he was once in,” said Alice Jensen, a VSP teacher with SSD at St. Mary’s. “I think the rigor of the program helped Mike to grow at a time when he was ready.”

The duties of a pharmacy technician are far and wide, and take them throughout the hospital working with nurses, filling medication dispensers, answering phone calls and filling stock orders at the central pharmacy.

“Working with nurses is the most challenging,” Clarence said. “Also just experiencing more and being in a new place.”

As a VSP student at St. Mary’s, Clarence can learn the remaining skills he needs to earn his way to employment with St. Mary’s or another pharmacy.

“The big difference here is they learn a full entry-level position,” Jensen said. “The expectations are high—they wear the uniform, wear the badge and are seen and treated like employees and experience the culture of this work environment.”

For observers, it is virtually impossible to tell the students from the employees. But students do have an added level of support built in from their teachers. For example, Jensen developed a map of the hospital’s different floors so that Clarence could locate the prescription dispensing machines throughout the hospital when he was new to the position.

“My biggest goal is giving them the tools to be as independent as possible,” Jensen said.

Now, Clarence makes his way through the hospital smoothly, often with Mike alongside.

“My favorite thing here is going on rounds because I get to walk around the hospital and have conversations with Mike and see other people here,” Clarence said. “He has shown me a lot.”

“The challenge is making sure he knows everything,” Mike said. “Doing this (training) is a lot harder than I thought it would be.”

Jensen stressed the importance of learning from a peer. “Clarence respects Mike a lot—that he’s been through what he’s going through,” Jensen said. “And Mike’s sense of humor really helped Clarence feel more comfortable.”

Andy Yates, a specialist technician in pharmacy at St. Mary’s, is the liaison between SSD and the pharmacy department and oversees the training process. He also trained Mike when he was a student.

“It’s a great opportunity for the ex-student to take their experience and not just help someone else, but also say ‘Hey, I came from the same thing,’” Yates said. “The two of them have a great rapport.”

What does Clarence think about the prospect of training someone in the future?

“Mike trained me, so I’ll pass it to someone else. And then they could pass it on to someone else,” he said.

Published May 2015

Mike Walker and Clarence Ray
Mike Walker (left) and Clarence Ray (right)

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Special School District of St. Louis County (SSD) is a leader in providing special education services to students with disabilities and also provides a wide range of career and technical education programs.
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