A remarkable push is underway in the Snoqualmie Valley to create inclusive employment opportunities for young adults with disabilities.
At the forefront of this endeavor is the Salish Lodge & Spa. Juan Carlos Castillo Pereira, the Lodge’s Housekeeping Manager and a visionary advocate for inclusivity, has spearheaded a groundbreaking Transitional Training Program in collaboration with the school district. This program aims to equip students with the skills to secure paid employment and lead fulfilling lives within their community.
Castillo Pereira was born in Guatemala and moved to the USA after living in Ixtapa, Mexico, for close to 20 years, working at a Resort. The Salish Lodge & Spa drew him to the Snoqualmie Valley area, where he has worked for a year and eight months.
Juan Carlos has been in hospitality for 32 years. He has two degrees, one of which is in Archaeology, so he worked on sites, laboratories, and anthropological-related activities before working in hospitality.
The Snoqualmie Valley School District’s Special Education Transition program, led by teachers Megan Bloomberg and Colleen Schmidt, is forging partnerships with local businesses to provide vocational training and meaningful work experiences for students aged 18 to 21.
Megan and her husband Sam, a goalie coach at the Sno-King Ice Arena in Snoqualmie, moved to Washington in 2017 from Michigan. They have been house hunting in the valley for over a year and hope to find their home soon. Their love for the outdoors, the Transition program, and the feeling of community in the valley drew them to the area.
Bloomberg was previously a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst for the Transitional Learning Center (TLC). She had always worked with individuals with disabilities, but the 18-21 age group is her ‘jam.’ As she became immersed in the TLC program and developed a deep connection with the students, her career path took a new direction.
Eventually, because of TLC and the fantastic other teachers, such as Colleen Schmidt, her career shifted to becoming a teacher. She jumped at the opportunity when a teaching spot opened at the TLC. Having completed her third year as a teacher in the program, Megan’s passion for working with transition students continues to grow.
Her fellow teacher Colleen Schmidt moved with her family of four to North Bend from Tacoma seven years ago when her husband’s job relocated. She has been a Snoqualmie Valley School District teacher for six years.
Before being a Transition Teacher, Colleen had various leadership roles working with children and adults with disabilities for MultiCare, Parks Departments and Special Olympics. Her degree is in Therapeutic Recreation, and in college, she found a passion for working with people of various abilities and attributes, as everyone has strengths and something to offer and needs to be seen.
The pair of teachers partner with local businesses in the valley, such as Pet Place Market, Trail Youth, ACE Hardware, YMCA and Camp Waskowitz, among others, who offer their spaces for students to get on-the-job practice and training.
Chris Creighton of Pet Place Market says, “PPM is 100% behind this program and will continue to support it.” Trail Youth’s Tonya Guinn agrees: “I love what this program offers to the students and our community. When you feel loved and valued, have the right support, and people who care, you thrive.”
Says Bloomberg, “It is a win-win because they receive volunteer work by some of the hardest working and wonderful individuals who are so excited to be a part of their community, and we get to learn skills that have students job-ready. The program also focuses on community inclusion and getting out in the community.”
Schmidt agrees, saying, “The businesses we have approached have been very welcoming, especially after COVID when we had to rebuild our program. We had to go from full access to community job sites to no community opportunities, then back to the community again. The valley is so supportive of our students and our program and made this transition easy. We would love more support from various businesses so that our students have exposure to different jobs and skills, helping them find their passion.”
Castillo Pereira of the Salish Lodge spent months researching how to support the valley population best. He believes it is the community’s responsibility to learn how to best work with individuals with various disabilities and not the responsibility of the person with the disability to teach the community.
He also shared that the research typically shows transition students in special education typically can get janitorial and cleaning jobs. Juan Carlos let the teachers know that he knows the students’ interests and skills expand beyond just cleaning tasks and that he was making ALL the departments available at Salish Lodge for us to use as career exploration.
This exploration will include sales, marketing, kitchen/culinary, front desk, housekeeping, grounds, barista, retail, and more. Juan Carlos even started making social stories and task analyses (visual supports with step-by-step pictures of tasks) to help students who may need them.
The Salish also offers the program one of their hotel rooms as a space to practice daily living skills such as making the bed, folding clothes, hanging up clothes, and keeping your space clean. Juan Carlos suggested this could also be used as a de-escalation/break space for students who may become overstimulated or need a break.
This was a significant change from the two teachers knocking on business doors and explaining what the program does and who our students are. Megan stated, “My co-teacher and I were in tears multiple times throughout the meeting.”
The students from the Transition program had the privilege of touring the lodge, allowing them to envision their future volunteer work and internships starting in the upcoming school year.
The Salish Lodge Transitional Training Program epitomizes Juan Carlos’s unwavering commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, and allyship (DEIA2). His tireless efforts have garnered immense respect among his colleagues and the wider community.
The DEIA2 Committee, co-founded by Juan Carlos Castillo Pereira and Mackenzie Helgerson, Salish Lodge’s Marketing Manager, has fostered a culture of inclusivity. It has initiated policies around ensuring all internal flyers and posters have an accompanying Spanish version. They’ve held internal fundraisers for Encompass, a food drive for the Snoqualmie Valley Food Bank, attended PRIDE events, increased signage and other ways to recognize and celebrate that Salish is located on the sacred land of the Snoqualmie people, and now they are working to develop this Transitional Training Program.
Helgerson celebrated one year as Marketing Manager in April but worked in The Dining Room in college. She says it’s a testament to Columbia Hospitality and Salish leadership that there are still so many team members who worked here after I started more than a decade ago.
Helgersons’s family, including her mother, works at Sigillo Cellars, which is in the area. She says, “We love and enjoy the entire Snoqualmie community. The people are all so neighborly. It seems like everyone knows each other and supports one another.“
Of Juan Carlos, Helgerson says, “JC is not only an incredibly hard worker and asset in his defined role but also a good human. He’s always looking for new ways to optimize systems and processes to be easier and seamless for our guests—way outside of what his department may require of him. During the winter, you can find him helping the valet team scrape ice or dig cars out of snow. As part of new team member orientation, there’s a required seminar to attend that Juan Carlos developed and translated for Spanish-speaking new hires.”
The Transitional Training Program is the brainchild of Castillo Pereira. This is where his values and the values of Columbia Hospitality merge in terms of inclusivity, creativity, and enthusiasm. According to Helgerson, Juan Carlos inspires those around him to want to do more and contribute in new ways.
The Snoqualmie Valley could become a beacon of inclusive employment practices with the collaborative efforts of Juan Carlos Castillo Pereira, Megan Bloomberg, Colleen Schmidt, Mackenzie Helgerson, and the entire community. By setting an example of compassion, understanding, and unwavering support, they should inspire businesses and communities to embrace diversity and create opportunities for individuals of all abilities.
In a world where barriers are being shattered and potential unleashed, the partnership between TLC and the Salish Lodge is a testament to the transformative power of inclusivity, collaboration, and a shared vision for a brighter tomorrow.
If you would like more information on how your business might participate in this wonderful program, Megan can be contacted at email@example.com