M Power, Empowering Students

By Gretchen Eichenberg

Teaching independence beyond the classroom

Two days a week Daniel Sumrall, 24, is dressed and ready for work an hour before it’s time to leave for his job as a barista at
a downtown coffee shop.“He lays his clothes out on the back of the chair the night before and is always waiting on me,” Laura Sumrall, Daniel’s mom, said. “He’s ready at 6:30, and we don’t leave until 7:30. He’s always ready and loves going to work.”

Daniel also keeps a very close watch on his work schedule at Bitty & Beau’s via the Square app, which he accesses on his iPhone.

“He’s always checking his schedule,” Sumrall said. “If he isn’t working his regular shift or is asked to come in during a short staff situation, he isn’t content with the change until he sees it on Square.”

In February of this year Daniel was named employee of the month, and it was noted on the shop’s website that he “has a steel trap of a mind — he has memorized our recipe book and can make a drink flawlessly while simultaneously reciting lengthy segments of Disney movies or Dr. Seuss books.”

Daniel has autism and a communication delay that were diagnosed when he was 3-and-a-half-years old. He progressed through Midway ISD’s special education program, and after he graduated, entered M Power, a district-led transition service for students over the age of 18 with disabilities. Throughout the three-year program students learn trade skills for employment and home care skills, such as cleaning and cooking for themselves — all to help them lead independent lives.

“Coming through M Power helped Daniel to develop the skills he needed,” Sumrall said. “Traditional special ed programs really weren’t developing it in him. But M Power did because they got out and went to the community. They did some job work and some things like that. So he was really, after that, ready to move into the job.”

Kim Johnson is a Midway ISD transition specialist. She works with special education students over the age of 14 to develop an individual education plan (IED), and she also heads up M Power. In 2019, after partnering with the Texas Workforce Commission on some coaching for kids with disabilities, Johnson and her team pioneered M Power, which is housed in a small brick building on campus, directly across from Panther Stadium.

There are currently 400 students with transition plans at Midway ISD, and this last year, M Power served 16 young adults. Not all students with transition plans are ideal candidates or in need of the program, but Johnson said M Power is looking to expand and is expecting 21 participants this fall.

“Our goal is for their last day with us to look like their first day of young adulthood, whatever that’s going to be,” Johnson said. “We do what’s called a person-centered plan with each student and their family to kind of see what their goals are, and we work from there. We create goals in four areas, and that’s what they’re graded on here.”

Johnson explained those four areas are education, employment, community and recreation.

“Whether it’s lifelong learning or going on to some kind of program that now does exist at some colleges for these students, or learning independent-living skills — that’s what all this is,” Johnson said. “We want to make sure that they’re going out into the community, doing something that gives them worth and value and meaning. That they’re getting that same thing that anybody would get from going to a job or going to volunteer.”

Whatever a student’s educational goals, or whatever physical or intellectual disability they have, the mission is the same.

“Self-advocacy,” M Power teacher Suzy Riedell said. “Learning how to function in the community, learning how to advocate for themselves. And that looks different for every student. Some students have higher needs than others. And so we just want them to learn to be as independent in the community as they can be and get themselves the opportunities that they need and know how to ask for them.”

Riedell added that the person-centered plan is a key to successfully unlocking an individual’s potential.

“It’s a really beautiful thing to see because we take these students in and we look at all facets of their life,” Riedell said. “Who are their circles of support? What are their strengths? What are their likes? What are their needs? We get that information from them, and then we get to see them grow from that first year on.”

Riedell said, in many cases, young adults with disabilities are accustomed to someone else telling them what to do, where to go or giving them permission to
do certain things. But as they transition to a more independent life, they must be able to make those choices on their own.

“We want to break them outside of that box,” Riedell said. “So if they’re out somewhere, they can say, ‘Hey, how do I get to this place?’ or ‘This is my address, this is my phone number.’ Or use public transportation. Read a menu. Ask for a job, do a job interview, make a resume, make money. They can be functional members of the community.”

But M Power is about more than simply being a functional member of society. It’s also about helping students discover their strengths and the abilities they may not know they possess and channeling them into a meaningful career.

“We thought Daniel would [work] in technology because he loves computers and wants to play on computers,” Sumrall said. “He has messed up computers and then fixed them for teachers and even hacked into the Midway security system. But because of his communication deficiency, it’s really hard for him to communicate with someone and then give them a product. So he’s working at Bitty & Beau’s, where he’s doing a very process-oriented job that is right up his alley.”

Philip Tilsley, 18, is a 2023 graduate of Midway High School and is in his first year of M Power.

His parents, Rene and Jason Tilsley, describe him as “silly” and a “talkative” guy who loves to swim and solve puzzles. And they hope Philip can master some of the same basic skills that Daniel Sumrall has learned through the program.

“Time management,” Rene Tilsley said. “If I say we’re going to leave in five minutes, he doesn’t understand that, that it means, ‘I need to get ready and be ready to walk out the door.’ So just managing his time in order to be able to be effective in the workplace.”

Riedell said Philip can absolutely learn to manage his time and more.

“In spite of the disability we’re pushing forward,” Riedell said. “We want more for them, and we have to have high expectations because most people don’t. We’re good at pushing them outside their comfort zone and their boundaries. I know what they can do, and I expect it.”

Riedell said it’s most gratifying when she notices a student passing on their skills to someone else.

“Like Angelo,” Riedell said. “He taught someone how to do laundry, and he did a phenomenal job. My heart is just beaming because somebody has taught him how to do laundry, and so now he’s teaching somebody else.”

Angelo Garcia, 20, is in his third year at M Power. His mother, Jena Eilers, describes her son as “very honest” and said he loves superheroes and making friends. He makes drinks at Bitty & Beau’s.

“He loves to help people,” Eilers said. “So he’s become the helper here. When there’s a new person, he likes to be the one to help them. They call him the leader here.”

Instilling confidence — showing students they can do it — is another key component to the program.

“We’re building up that confidence in them,” Riedell said. “Philip didn’t know how to use the washing machine, and Angelo probably didn’t know how to do it when he first came here. But now he feels like that coach, teaching someone else because this is his [third] year. And that feels good.”

Riedell said M Power teachers take an “I can” approach with both students and their parents.

“So many times we’ll sit down with parents and talk about things like cooking and using the stove. And they will say, ‘He can’t use the stove or the microwave.’ And the parents don’t realize that every time they say that they’re saying their kid can’t,” Riedell said.

“We don’t ever say that you can’t. We might do it differently, or we might have to grow into it. It might take six, eight, 10 weeks to get to independence or semi-independence on that. But you can.”

One of the hardest parts about an M Power teacher’s job, Riedell said, is letting the students do things by themselves.

“When we go out in the community, by default, anywhere we go, everybody wants to do it for our students,” Riedell said. “It’s hard for me too. I’m sitting there saying to myself, ‘Suzy, let them do it.’ Now it might take longer, and it might be a little messier, but then that’s just another opportunity to learn a new skill.”

At the end of last school year Riedell said they had several gallons of ice cream in the freezer, as well as all the fixings for ice cream sundaes.

“I wrote on the board who had to get out what ingredients,” she said. “We just sat back and watched them bring everything to the table. They just kind of sat there for a minute, and they’re looking around, but we didn’t say anything. Finally one of them started opening things, and by the time it was over they were knee deep in cherries and whipped cream, and they got to make their own sundaes with no coaching from us. And to hear the giggles — it was really neat. They also cleaned it all up themselves.”

Community partnerships — companies that welcome students to work in various roles — play a vital part in the M Power program. The students get real-world experience performing key tasks at local businesses and nonprofits.

“We get to learn what it’s like to work in the back of UPS,” Riedell said. “I can tell you where your package is going to go when you return it from Amazon. We get to see what it’s like in the back of Old Navy. Or straightening cans in the aisles at Walmart or H-E-B — even though that is somebody’s job that they are paid to do, we go over there and volunteer, doing that. Or Goodwill or Shepherd’s Heart Pantry, where we bag up groceries for them. We give to the needy, we’re the ones helping the needy. It’s really neat, the stuff that we get to see and experience.”

Local partners also hire M Power students and others with disabilities.

Tyson Lane, 24, lives to work. He graduated from M Power three years ago, and though he is nonverbal, has held several jobs in the community. He is the grandson of Peggy Lane, who has been caring for him since he graduated from high school in Austin, where he was involved in Boy Scouts and achieved a brown belt in karate.

“His first job was wrapping silverware at Cotton Patch,” Lane said. “He had also volunteered at the American Heart Association and Fuzzy Friends Rescue, where
I got him involved.”

But Tyson really wanted to work at H-E-B.

“Every time we passed, he’d say, ‘I want to work there. I want to work there,’” Lane said. “He’s a sacker at Woodway H-E-B, and he absolutely loves it. He just loves people. He’s been there two years — he got his two-year badge — and usually works about 11 or 12 hours a week.”

Lane said the social skills and life skills Tyson learned at M Power allowed him to thrive in the workplace.

“I teach that at home, but it was putting together all these opportunities and learning what the other kids do that made the difference,” Lane said.

For Garrett Anz, 21, it’s about reaching beyond his potential and what anyone thought possible. Garrett was born with pervasive developmental delays, sensory integration issues and an intellectual disability. After graduating from M Power, he also began working as a bagger at H-E-B.

“He’s reserved, but his personality is a caregiver,” his dad, Jeff Anz, said.

“He loves taking care [of others] and pampering and helping and serving. He’s a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. He really loves working with and helping the people get their bags in their basket the right way. He loves that process.”

Anz said his son has been on a “progressive road of gain” throughout his life.

“Garrett’s victories are simply having a conversation — how to complete sentences and how to ask questions and how to express emotion and concerns,” Anz said. “It’s been incredible to watch. M Power was a really big contributor towards his next steps through independent living.”

The Anz family is looking into some collegiate programs where Garrett can continue to grow and thrive.

“Clemson has one called ClemsonLIFE. We applied there, but he got denied because his test scores were too high, which is a good thing. Alabama has one. Auburn has a program. North Texas has a program, and Baylor is looking at a program,” Anz said. “We don’t know where he is going to go, but we know he’s going somewhere. It’s exciting, and it’s something that you don’t envision as a parent. And all of a sudden these doors open, and so many opportunities open. People here at M Power, like Kim Johnson, have been speaking into his life and have really encouraged him to move those directions.”

Lisa Cochran, Director of Special Education at Midway ISD, said the heart and soul of M Power lies in the staff and the teachers that run it — like Vincent Lopez, a retired candymaker at Mars Wrigley Confectionery who supervised many workers during his career. He joined the staff and offers his experience in job training and workplace logistics.

“I’ve worked with a lot of different people to find out what their job skills are,” Lopez said, “and there’s a job for everyone. Working in special education has opened my eyes to the needs and wants of these kids.”

Lopez said some of his M Power students work harder and with more appreciation than others their age.

“Everyone can do something, but the kids with [disabilities], they can do it better than some and wouldn’t even complain about it,” he said. “They don’t mind getting in there and sweeping or whatever is needed on a job site. They’re all gung-ho, and they’re always ready to go.”

Cochran said the magic happens when you have the right people on the job.

“We have great things happening here because we have the right people in the right place,” Cochran said. “Mrs. Riedell doesn’t get to go home and just turn it off. She’s thinking about the next activity or what she needs to do the next morning: ‘Oh, I noticed so-and-so needed this. I’m gonna have to do that in the morning.’ It never stops because her heart and soul is invested in these children. Mr. Lopez is the same way. This opened his eyes to how we’re giving them purpose and pride and access to their communities. And that’s a fulfilling job.”

While M Power teachers are working to help students transition into adulthood, their parents go through a transition as well, Johnson said.

“Many of our parents are transitioning their beliefs at the same time that their student is transitioning from high school to young adulthood,” Johnson said. “So while M Power is doing great things with our students, we are also trying to support our families. Our families [in the program] are truly a family because these kids have grown up together, these families have struggled together. They can relate to each other, work together and share resources with each other.”

Sumrall said the kids coming through the program are capable of doing many things in the community.

“This program is helping develop work skills and develop some connections in the community to be able to transition out of school,” said Sumrall.

“There are a lot of things that these kids can do, and it just takes just the right connection.”

The social aspect is something that’s important to Eilers for her son’s quality of life, so she was glad when Angelo formed a friendship with Garrett.

“When Angelo finished high school, I was worried about that,” Eilers said. “He had [been involved in] Special Olympics. He had a lot of friends, and I didn’t want him to go home and that social time be gone. But he has friends here, and I will drop him off, and they will go to the mall. He and Garrett have gone bowling. That’s not something I did before, and I still worry and check my phone. But I can see that independence.”

Angelo recently attended a summer camp at the University of North Texas, where he learned job and professional skills.

“When I picked him up after the first weekend, he asked, ‘Is there another one of these?’” Eilers said. “I was worried he was going to miss us, and he was ready to go back.”

At the end of the day M Power parents want the same things for their child as any other parent.

“We want Garrett to be successful in his identity, to be successful in how God has designed him,” Jeff Anz said. “And it’s been crazy to see so much of it unfold. Looking back to see all that has taken place in his life, it’s been so inspiring.”