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Education: ‘Little bakery guy’ makes big impact on special needs students
By Charles Swenson
Max Goree gets to work around 1:30 in the morning. He goes home around 6 in the evening. In between, he still finds time for the special needs students from Waccamaw High. It was part of his plan when he opened the Pawleys Island Bakery eight years ago.
“I’m hardly the only one who gives back in that way. I’m pleased to be surrounded by people who give back,” Goree said. The difference is that he was named the Outstanding Employer of the Year by the state Division of Career Development and Transition, a partnership of organizations that work with the disabled.
He was surprised when he learned that he had been nominated for the award by Mary Tester, the transition teacher at Waccamaw and a past winner of Outstanding Special Educator of the Year. But it didn’t sink in until he attended the group’s annual meeting in Columbia and found himself in the company of state agency heads and university officials. “I’m just this little bakery guy,” Goree said.
That’s what makes the award special, Tester said. “I think last year, a hospital won,” she said. “It was really awesome that he was chosen.”
She went to the bakery soon after it opened to ask if Goree would be willing to let her students come and work on job skills. It turned out that Goree had been doing that in other places for over 20 years. The first was in Westport, Conn., where he had a bakery. One of his customers taught special needs students at the local high school. One of those students ended up making all the cookies for the bakery, Goree recalled.
While most people have some variation in even repetitive tasks, he said, special needs students “are singular in their approach. They’re vary focused.” So the student’s cookies were “flawless.”
He took on the students because he recalled “always being called out for not being normal” when he was in school. “I was looking in the mirror and afraid of seeing myself,” he said.
In those days, “there was a lack of awareness of ability, of what’s locked up inside,” Goree said. “They don’t get that these folks are amazing and have form and function.”
Goree has the insight and the patience to unlock those skills in her students, Tester said. She was “pleasantly surprised” when he offered to do the training himself. Her students practice job skills at school and she is always looking for businesses that will give them real world experience. The emphasis is on providing skills that they can use after they leave school.
“Everyone can learn a skill,” Goree said. “I treat them as though they were absolutely on the payroll.”
He is willing to take even those students who perform at the lowest level, Tester said. In fact, he encourages it.
One boy had “major social issues at home,” Goree said. He couldn’t use both hands at the same time and was angry that he couldn’t make himself understood. Eventually, he was tying knots and writing. His speech improved. He got a job outside the bakery. “The kids evolve in ways that are unique to them,” Goree said. “It shows on their face. It shows in their wanting to come back.”
What makes Goree a good teacher is his ability to break down the tasks into individual steps, Tester said. He will create a job around those steps that a student can perform.
All that Goree knows about working with special needs students he learned on the job. “All I’ve ever been trained to do is cook,” he said. But he said anyone can do it who has time, even an hour, to teach someone their business and “the ability to get past the special need, whatever it is.”
Not everyone is comfortable around special needs students, Tester said, but the stigma is fading. Businesses where her students work have seen support grow from their customers. “We live in a wonderful community that’s very supportive,” she said.
Goree also visits Tester’s class with Cocoa, his Maltese. He invites the class to the bakery for breakfast or lunch to learn the social skills of ordering and eating in a restaurant.
But it is in the workplace where he continues to make the greatest impact, teaching skills that allow the students to have productive lives. “One of the things that special needs students require, especially now that they’re young adults, they really require physical attention. A good arm around the shoulder, a hug, a smile. The physical approach to it works really well,” Goree said. “So much of society is cold to them.”