March 25, 2024

Christine Pellerin, MSEd, BCBA, LABA, has the perfect job. As the program coordinator for the RISE (Reaching Independence through Supported Employment) program in Shrewsbury, she helps provide students aged 18-22 in the Shrewsbury Public Schools the skills and opportunities they need to be successful, more independent members of their community. It’s a job she found thanks to her experiences learned over her 12 years working in the residential and vocational departments at The New England Center for Children (NECC).

“This position allows me to take all of my skills from working in the vocational department and all of my education skills from NECC and really meld them together,” Pellerin shared. “It really is the perfect position for me.”

Pellerin started at NECC right after college, drawn to working for an organization that would help her get her master’s degree. While working in the residential program, Pellerin earned her master’s degree in education from Simmons University and her post-grad degree from Western New England University, which enabled her to get her BCBA certification. She embraced the opportunity to work as a lead teacher and program specialist at NECC’s sister school in Abu Dhabi for two years, before returning to NECC Southborough to work in the vocational department, where she stayed for six years.

“I absolutely loved the vocational department,” shared Pellerin. “It really brought together all of those things I really liked about teaching and being a BCBA. I didn’t want to leave, and I knew that the only thing that was going to get me to leave was the perfect position.”

In 2022, that opportunity arose when Shrewsbury established the RISE program to accommodate the growing number of students needing entitlement services. Prior to that year, Shrewsbury used out-of-district placements for its 18-22 year old students. Pellerin explained that the RISE program was based at Shrewsbury High School with three students last year, but currently serves 16 students in a newly renovated building in the center of town. Half of the building is dedicated to the program’s learning spaces, while the other half is a retail store, Maple & Main, where students in the RISE program work in shifts across the week. 

“The goal of the store is for our students to get hands-on skills to prepare them for future employment,” explained Pellerin. “We really focus on those transferable skills, as we like to call them, skills they can learn here that they can bring to any job in the future. And then there is the community piece of it; we want them to make connections with their local community, and that’s what the store really does.”

These skills include customer service skills, professionalism, taking inventory, restocking, working the cash register, and even helping choose products that are sold in the store. In fact, students were involved in the planning and opening of the store and even built some of the shelves. They helped pick out the products and hand-make many of the items for sale, including learning to screen print t-shirts and sanding and staining the wood used for hand-crafted signs. Along with working in the store, RISE students also have internships and paid employment in the community.

Goutham - RISE “Two of my favorite things are having lessons and doing retail work,” said Goutham, a RISE student who spends time working at Maple & Main. “RISE is fun because I get to learn about lots of different things. My teachers are really nice and help me become independent and teach me lots of new skills. They train me to do different jobs and it will help me be prepared.”

Pellerin credits NECC for helping her find her passion in life. She explained that she was able to experience different opportunities in the field, such as working with a range of ages and in different roles, including as a supervisor and in the vocational department.

“It taught me those skills that I am using day in and day out with this transition population here,” she said. “Prior to getting into the vocational department, I don’t know if I had a good understanding of what it looks like to have students hold jobs and have experience with that. My experience in the vocational department allowed me to help secure internships and other opportunities for our students. And working as a program specialist and residential coordinator helped me build up my supervisor skills. I didn’t have that before coming to NECC.”

 In addition to Pellerin, the RISE program has 10 staff, including three other NECC staff alumni, a testament to the career-building experiences NECC offers.

“The best part is that four of us here have worked at NECC, so we have a mutual understanding about what it’s like, and we all have that experience that we can share,” said Jennifer Tabor, the store and business manager of Maple & Main.

Though Tabor worked in the residential program at NECC for just a year, it impacted her entire career. “NECC really helped me where I am now,” explained Tabor, who, prior to joining the RISE program, worked in the Shrewsbury Public Schools as an ABA tech in the preschool for five years. “All of the experiences and the training really helped me in the public school setting. If you’re looking into getting into the field, NECC is the best place to start. The training and hands-on experience that you have at NECC is unlike any other school system.”

Kristi Menard, MSEd, a special education teacher in the RISE program, started at NECC two days after graduating from Westfield State University and spent the next four years working across the residential program.

“The experience that I got in case management, communicating with families, and working together in a partnership is a key element of what I do here and in public education as well,” shared Menard, who left NECC to work in the public school system after earning her master’s degree from Simmons University. She has been with Shrewsbury Public Schools for six years and joined RISE in July 2023 when the summer program opened.

“One of the key takeaways from my NECC experience that I always go back to is keeping a patient and calm demeanor, the ability to de-escalate in a verbal or physical situation, and to remain neutral in those situations,” she explained. “I’ve gotten a lot of feedback over the years from various people about how they wish they [had those skills]. That just goes directly back to the training that I got at NECC right from the beginning.”

Erin (Collins) Hruskoci, MEd, a RISE Program special education teacher, also started at NECC after graduating college in 1990. “From the minute that I walked in the door at NECC, I knew that this was a field that I wanted to be in,” Hruskoci said.

Hruskoci spent about four years working in the staff intensive unit, before leaving to pursue her teaching degree. She joined Shrewsbury Public Schools in 2009 as a Wilson reading tutor and special educator but accepted the job with the RISE program in July 2023.  

Hruskoci shared that she looks back so fondly at the ABA training she had while at NECC because it taught her how to understand students’ behavior. “What it has given me is a goal to always understand why a student is doing what they’re doing and their goals, and to make sure that the student is successful in all settings, whether it’s vocational, community, or in the classroom,” she said.

RISE studentShe added that she was excited when the RISE program position opened up because the job brought her back to her roots working at NECC providing instruction to 18-22 year olds in group lessons and working toward individualized education program (IEP) goals with the students.

“It is probably the most rewarding job that I’ve had in my career so far,” she explained. “Students are around an age where they’re directing a lot of what they want to do, and it’s really cool helping them set personal goals. These life-changing skills that we’re teaching ensure that students are successful throughout their lives.”

“RISE is important because it can prepare you for what you want to do in the future,” shared Zaid, a RISE student who works with Hruskoci. “My future goals are to become more independent and do things by myself. RISE will help me learn how to be more independent.”

The RISE program achieves this by keeping the students front and center of Maple & Main. Menard said that it provides students with an opportunity to apply the skills they’ve been working on in the academic side of the program in a practical and meaningful way.

“It’s really important for the students to work in the store as much as possible, and for people to see the students first,” she said. “The students have been working really hard to learn those skills as far as communicating and welcoming people into the store, giving them tours, showing them around, explaining what we’re all about, and explaining the products that they have worked really hard to make.”

Every customer is an opportunity for our students to work on their skills,” added Tabor.

Maple & Main is located at 557 Main Street in Shrewsbury. For more information, including store hours, visit their website or check the store out on Facebook or @maplemainshrewsbury on Instagram.