The future once looked bleak for Katrina Ellis and Sonny Castillo, high school students in the Alpine District.

As special-needs students, whose difficulties ranged from minor to major learning disabilities, they struggled in school, headed for a future that seemed to portend a lifetime of menial labor jobs - or dependence on family or government for support.Today, all that has changed.

Thanks to a cooperative partnership among American Fork Hospital, Timp Industries, the Alpine School District, Mountainlands Association of Governments and federal Job Training Partnership Act programs, the students have received on-the-job technical training that has prepared them to move into the work force, and toward self-sufficiency.

The pilot program, Alpine Transition and Employment, is modeled after a similar program operated at Alta View Hospital in the Salt Lake Valley.

"We saw a need in the school system for a vocational program to identify what kinds of career options might be available to students with special needs," said Alberta Hall, transition employment coordinator for Timp Industries and the Alpine District.

"The type of student we're looking at is one for whom high school graduation is not possible, either because the student dropped out or completed it without a graduation certificate," said Lamont Dansie, director of Timp Industries. But, Dansie said, the students are capable of more than basic entry-level work.

With the help of Lane Pederson, assistant administrator of human services at American Fork Hospital, eight job-training sites were identified at the hospital: grounds maintenance, housekeeping, food services, central processing, materials management, laundry, administrative services and medical records.

Katrina performs secretarial duties in the hospital's administrative offices. Sonny has been trained in building maintenance.

The objective is to place special-needs students in one of these areas, provide intensive training and then help the students move into a similar paid position in the community. Training lasts from 45 days to as long as necessary. Four students are training at American Fork Hospital, splitting their days between school classes and job training.

The key to the program's success is job coach Herta Sanders. Sanders was trained in each of the eight areas first. As each student enters the program, Sanders provides initial training, remaining by the student's side until the student is familiar with the job. As the student becomes capable of performing on his or her own, Sanders withdraws, although she is always on call within the hospital. Also, each Friday, Sanders holds a class in non-job related skills, such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation, job interviewing skills or self-esteem, based on the needs of each student.

When a student is placed in a job, Sanders goes along until the student is acclimated to the new situation.

"Where everything was going wrong for these students before, now it is all right, and they have a future," Hall said. "People with a variety of special needs can work and be successful in community-based jobs if they have the appropriate support."

"This is the opportunity of a lifetime," said a mother of one of the students, who asked to remain anonymous. "It has given my child direction. We're tickled to see her come out of her shell. We didn't know what the future held for her. Now, she just seems to want to go forward."

The program, which has contracted for 10 students this year, is open to any Alpine District high school student with special needs. Continued funding depends on the successful placement of students in private-sector jobs.