The new Longview networking group is also focused on helping students with special needs | Local

Once a week, Bre’Ana McClendon and her classmates Javier SanMiguel and Cody Brantley, along with teacher Suzanne Puryear, meet at Shawn Ingram’s Custom Graphics TX store on Gilmer Road, Longview.

Last Wednesday, however, it wasn’t just them. Local businessmen Michelle Gamboa, Kristin Koonce and Ben Norris also gathered around a table and chatted and laughed with the students at Pine Tree High School.

When they visited, the students folded T-shirts and placed them in clear plastic bags. They added size stickers and sealed the bags. That’s a job they do every week at Custom Graphics.

Pine Tree High School student Javier San Miguel folds and wraps reprinted t-shirts February 2 at Custom Graphics TX in Longview while attending a business networking club that helps students with special needs.

Ingram, Gamboa, Koonce and Norris are part of a new group hoping to expand these opportunities for students while benefiting from the networking between their companies and others. The new business networking group is called Longview Connections.

“I know how to fold shirts and bag shirts,” McClendon said, shortly after pointing to Ingram and saying. “I like picking on him.”

Brantley said he likes the work they do at Custom Graphics and the soon-to-be 18-year-old said he hopes to get a job after school.

“It feels like family,” he said of his stint at Custom Graphics.

Longview Connections

Pine Tree High School students Cody Brantley, left, Javier San Miguel and Bre’Ana McClendon fold and wrap newly printed t-shirts February 2 at Custom Graphics TX in Longview while attending a business networking club that brings together students with special needs needs helps.

In short, it was a day that ticked off all the reasons Puryear brings their life skills students to Custom Graphics. She has taught students with intellectual disabilities at Pine Tree for six years. She takes her students to various companies to learn job skills and prepare them for adult life.

“We can do all sorts of things and small assignments in the classroom,” Puryear said. “Until they go out into the community and experience that — then it becomes more real to them.”

Her students have also worked at the Dream Center and Gifts of Grace, where they learned how to hang and sort clothes, clean the area where the clothes are sold, and sort and color-code shoes—retail skills. She also took them to the Drug Emporium, where they learned how to “face” the shelves — or straighten all the products on the shelves so all the products are facing the front.

Puryear said she just knocks on company doors, looking for something the students could do and companies to let them in.

Longview Connections

Shawn Ingram, owner of Custom Graphics TX, visits Pine Tree High School student Bre’Ana McClendon February 2 as she folds T-shirts.

“I don’t want my students who are able to do any job, I don’t want them to sit at home and do nothing,” Puryear said, saying that this would be an unfulfilling life for her. “It just breaks my heart. They should make some money and be as normal adults as they can be.”

So when Ingram came to her with his idea for the business networking group and asked how he could help her students, she replied, “I said I needed an open door. That’s it.”

Longview Connections will hold its first meeting on February 17th at 8:30am at Bubba’s 33 where owner/operator Chelsee Dorgan is providing the breakout room. Ingram said members would pay $5 each time to tip employees that Dorgan hired to work with them and to financially support local organizations like Puryear’s Life Skills Course.

Each week, participating companies have an opportunity to highlight their activities, distribute marketing materials and speak to other business owners.

“First and foremost it’s a networking group, but I believe strongly in community and outreach and continue to pay for it,” said Ingram. “I think if we come together and can benefit from each other as a company, then as a group we can also benefit from others.”

The other business owners at Custom Graphics have also been looking for ways to help students get involved with their businesses or other businesses and nonprofits over the past week. The effort is of particular significance to Gamboa, who said she has a sister with cerebral palsy. Gamboa’s family owns Roof Care, where she is Operations Manager.

“My goal is to help them plug into what they like,” she said.

When Puryear gets a chance to talk to companies, she also tells them about a Texas Workforce Commission program that provides students with a job coach and pays their salaries for a specified period of time.

“I have a desire to help them bring out the best in them,” Puryear said. The work, she said, fills her with pride.

“Your self-confidence will increase. They talk about it” and say, “‘I can do this. That I have learned.'”

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