Learning Center graduate heads toward great ‘Opportunity’
Donald Holt, 24, sat at a table at Park City Coffee Roasters while his mother, Jane Bjorklund, took a personal call outside. He looked both excited and nervous, much like any other young man or woman making an out-of-state move to continue their education.
Holt graduated from the Park City Learning Center a couple of years ago and is moving to Las Vegas to attend Opportunity Village. According to the official website, it is "a not-for-profit organization that serves people in the Southern Nevada community with intellectual disabilities to enhance their lives and the lives of families who love them."
The organization, which operates five different campuses, helps adults with disabilities to transition to independence and "realize future career paths."
Bjorklund stepped back inside and took a seat at the table next to her son.
"The parties are all over now so he’s getting a little nervous now that [the move] is becoming a real thing," Bjorklund said.
Holt swatted his hand to the side; slightly embarrassed that his mother would tell someone he is nervous.
The move to Opportunity Village is what Bjorklund calls "the next chapter" in her son’s life. Holt has Down Syndrome, and he started school in various preschool programs in southern California. When it came time for first grade, Bjorklund said that Holt was placed in a special education school.
That is when his teacher suggested to her that she "mainstream" him, which means to place him in a public elementary school with children without special needs. She told Bjorklund that he was very high-functioning and would do well in that setting.
"This was 19 years ago, so the laws had just come into place that schools were required to have special education programs so special needs children could be mainstreamed," Bjorklund said. "They didn’t have any special needs children in his elementary at the time, so we pioneered that in a sense."
She said that the transition to middle school and junior high was somewhat difficult, and that is when she moved Holt to Draper, Utah. He attended school in Salt Lake City, including a year at Jordan High School. When Bjorklund heard that the Park City School District’s special education program was "considered one of the most successful models in the U.S.," she moved with her son to Park City.
He attended Park City High School with Dana Riley, former Park City High School special education teacher, and the rest of the special education department while also attending the Park City Learning Center with the help of Tessie Palczynski.
Bjorklund said that Holt thrived at the high school, the Learning Center and the community as a whole. He walked through graduation but did not receive his certificate until he completed the three-year post-education program at the Learning Center.
He began living independently once he started attending the Learning Center full-time, which Bjorklund said was "probably the scariest thing [she’s] ever been through in [her] life."
Bjorklund moved into a house she rented across the street from Parkside Apartments where Holt was living, which she thanked for helping to provide a structured environment. He followed guidelines and rules that included not leaving the apartment unless it was to do his laundry or get on the Mobility Bus to go to work.
Holt has worked at the Home Depot off U.S. 40 for the past seven years, and every morning, Monday through Friday, he attended the Basin Recreation center to exercise and lift weights.
"I was able to work with Basin Rec to get Donald a lifetime pass, as well as other adults with disabilities in Park City," Palzcynski said. "Everyone there knows him and looks out for him, so when it came time to throw a going away party, I asked if we could use The Fieldhouse and they were more than happy to let us."
Holt also served on the Utah Developmental Disabilities Council with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, and Bjorklund said it was wonderful to see how the state has tried to continue to secure funding for adults with special needs.
Palczynski said federal government funding for education for these adults after the age of 22 was cut between 2000 and 2004, making it difficult for them to continue their education.
That is why she told Bjorklund upon Holt’s entrance into the Learning Center that she needed to start doing the necessary research to find Holt a place to continue his education after his 22nd birthday.
Together, Bjorklund and Palczynski got Holt into Opportunity Village, which Bjorklund says is "Las Vegas’ no. 1 charity." He will be attending the Inglestead campus and live with Bjorklund until dormitories are set up in the next couple of years. Home Depot was also able to transfer him from the Park City store to the Summerlin location where he will start work in three weeks.
While they will be busy in Las Vegas and at Opportunity Village, Bjorklund said they will miss the city and school district that helped to give Holt a "wonderful life."
"We would just love to thank the community as a whole," Bjorklund said. "The strongest factor is the district and the special education program and support we had there, but all these other community entities have helped to shape Donald and give him such a great life here."
When asked who he would like to thank, there was one person Holt was most grateful to.
"I’m going to thank my mother," he said as he leaned in to give her a hug and a kiss.
"That’s so sweet of you," Bjorklund said, smiling at her son. "We’re going to miss it here, but we’ll be back to ski like real tourists."
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There was a common theme in every address delivered during the Park City High School Class of 2021 graduation ceremony Thursday: gratitude.