Diagnosed with autism at 3, Sean Morse was going to have a cubicle job, spend his days entering data and live with his parents forever and ever. It was what it was, said his mother, Danielle Morse.
But at 21, Sean Morse had different ideas: He was going to continue with school, live away from home, get a job and be married by 27.
“We finally started listening to Sean,” Danielle Morse said.
With more than a little trepidation, Sean’s parents, of Waterville Valley, helped him get signed up with the nascent culinary program First Course, nearly two hours away from home in Keene. He would have to have an apartment and get to class on his own.
On Dec. 21, Morse along with six other trainees, graduated. Morse earned the perfect-attendance honor.
First Course, a nonprofit program created by Monadnock Developmental Services along with several other social service agencies, is open to anyone in New Hampshire.
The program is a 16-week intensive study in how to work and find work in a kitchen.
The program began a year ago and has already graduated eight classes, said Sheila Mahon, First Course director. The idea was to train people with disabilities to work in the food industry. But, the program was so popular, Mahon said, it was soon opened up to anyone looking for training.
The class makeup runs the gamut of people with developmental, physical and mental impairments, along with career-changers and people just out of high school.
Trainees study with professional chefs. They learn their way around a kitchen — how to wait tables, how to interview and create a proper resume, even how to talk to people in the work-a-day world, said Denise Meadows, program director.
Away from home
Before attending First Course, Sean Morse had never been away from home for longer than it took to walk to the local shopping plaza.
“He told us, ‘I need to live away from home.’ And our first thought was, ‘How can you?'” his mother, Danielle, said.
Morse and his parents made sure he had housing and was connected with services he would need in Keene. They made sure he was able to find the local grocery store and taught him how to get there. One of Sean’s former teachers, living in the Keene area, offered to be his support person in the class.
Still, for the first month, the Morses trekked from their hometown to Keene, sleeping on the floor in their son’s new studio apartment.
But after a while, he told his parents he’d see them only on holidays, and he stuck to it. The once non-social 21-year-old was living like others his age. He was on Facebook, he did his own laundry, got to class on time. In other words, Sean Morse thrived.
“I think it was the hardest thing he ever did,” Danielle Morse said. “But he barreled through it.”
That’s not to say Morse didn’t have his challenges. It took him a bit to open up, Meadows said.
Coordinators sit down with trainees at the four-, eight- and 12-week marks for progress reports. Meadows said at first they talked with Morse, who wouldn’t initiate conversations with classmates. At the eight-week mark, they complimented Morse, saying they noticed he’d been trying.
“He stood up from his chair like, ‘See I can do this,'” Meadows said. “He had set out to prove it to us, and he did.”
Now that he’s graduated, Danielle Morse said her son is onto the next thing — finding a job. He recently informed her he would be returning to his apartment in Keene to begin his job search.
“Everybody kind of thought he’d come back here, but he said, ‘I live in Keene; that’s my home,'” she said. “He’s really proud of it. … He has a vision for his future and he’s sticking to it.”
By MELANIE PLENDA
Union Leader Correspondent