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Young students are VIPs (with audio, photos)

MANATEE — After the mini-bus exited Meals On Wheels Plus on Monday morning, Don Herndon tried to get his students’ attention.

If Sergey Petrov would stop talking first.

The loquacious Ukraine native regaled seven classmates about all the movies he watched Sunday night as the vehicle headed south on 15th Street East.

“Sergey,” said Herndon, director of the Easter Seals Southwest Florida VIP Academy. “I’ll bet you a dollar you can’t be quiet five minutes.”

He didn’t last two.

“All right,” Herndon said aloud. “How many stops today?”

Eleven, said Ashley Fields, who held the delivery list, as others in the mini-bus pulled milk and food from two coolers.

It was teamwork for the students, ages 15 to 22, who are mentally retarded and have a range of emotional, mental and physical issues.

This was just one day’s exercise by which VIP (Vocational Introduction and Preparation) gets its students into the community, learning independent living and pre-vocational skills.

Other days VIP takes them to Goodwill, Manatee Players and Manatee Apparel Graphics among others to clean, sort and stack items and do inventory.

“We think there are all sorts of teachable moments, and today they’re going to have to interact with strangers, say hello, introduce themselves and maybe go into the house with the meal,” Herndon said. “That communication element is important.”

Carol Chronister appreciated the effort when Allison Norwood brought her meal.

“It’s a nice touch every day to see they’re doing something that makes them feel good and it helps me so much,” said the Whitfield resident.

Fields enjoyed Monday’s task.

“It helps me learn how to get a job and learning more job skills,” the 21-year-old said. “It also keeps us busy and out of trouble.”

Allan Stine can relate.

He helped Fields load food at Meals On Wheels Plus and took turns delivering food with Noemi Gonzalez-Bautista, Tyler Cook, Eric Mendoza and Joel Parks.

“I couldn’t along with other students, had fights, but this has helped me go a long ways,” said Stine, 19.

VIP helped Meals On Wheels Plus a long way, too. Take it from Elaine Pohorence, the volunteer route coordinator.

“I could not do without them,” she said. “They fill in four days a week when a lot of our volunteers are gone for the summer. I’d be lost.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.

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