On school days, Taelah Smith and Tiana Dillon don’t need any encouragement to get up and moving.
They’re awake at the crack of dawn, bursting with excitement about what the day will bring and eager to put on the staff uniforms that fill them with so much pride.
The two women, both of whom have disabilities, are the newest and happiest recruits at Comet Bay Primary School, south of Perth.
Ms Smith, 19, has Down syndrome, while Ms Dillon, 20, has autism.
They may be volunteers, but the school has embraced them as members of staff, after what began as something of an experiment late last year.
Deputy principal Megan Wiasa’s eyes water when she talks about the impact the young women have had on the school and its students, and how they’ve grown themselves.
“Just seeing these two young ladies who feel so good about their job at Comet Bay, it just brings us all lots of joy, absolutely,” she says.
“It’s amazing how when given the opportunity, the skills they have will really shine.”
An experiment that started with a student
The “experiment” began late last year, when a new student with Down syndrome enrolled at the school.
While Comet Bay has more than 20 students with a range of disabilities, it has never had a child with Down syndrome and she was having a hard time settling in.
To make her feel less alone, the school decided to offer a work placement to a young adult with Down syndrome who could act as a positive role model and guardian, and improve awareness of the condition.
In the end the school didn’t need to look far.
Ms Smith’s mother, Amanda Adams — a special needs assistant already working at the school — was on the lookout for more meaningful work for her daughter and jumped when the opportunity presented itself.
She was quickly embraced by the school community and it wasn’t long before other parents were contacting the school, asking if their disabled children could do work placements too.
Comet Bay offered a second placement to Ms Dillon earlier this year.
Already the young autistic woman has made a huge difference, helping a young student with cerebral palsy feel less isolated.
“She feels more comfortable and her classmates are just that little bit more empathetic than they used to be, which is what our goal always is,” Ms Wiasa says.
She says the two women are “just part of our regular staff now and part of the Comet Bay community”.
“From the minute they walk in they’re always happy, they are probably the most punctual staff we have.
“They just make us laugh and it really makes us appreciate that there is something for everyone.”
Both women are at the school two days a week, accompanied by their support workers.
If and when they’re able to work independently, the school hopes to eventually employ them.
Principal Graeme Watson says everyone is thrilled with the success of the school’s new recruits.
“We’d love to have them forever and we’ll be looking at whether we can source some grants to grow the program within the school, and maybe offer the opportunity to additional people with disabilities as well,” he says.
From physical education to arts and crafts
The pair are in high demand, with teachers and students requesting their presence in class, and students flocking to them when they come.
They work with all year groups in the school as required, across different subject areas including physical education and cooking.
Ms Smith says she especially likes physical education with “Mr G” and working in the library.
Ms Dillon is happiest doing arts and crafts, and if there’s glitter and sparkles, it doesn’t get any better.
They are also required to do lunch duty — a job many teachers would prefer to sit out.
They get to wear hi-vis vests and mingle with the children, giving them purpose and a sense of importance — a good foundation for positive self-esteem.
‘I’m just really proud of her’
While it’s a win-win situation for the school and the young women, the arrangement is also a massive source of comfort and pride to their parents.
Like many parents of children with disabilities, they worry about what will become of their grown up children — whether they will be truly accepted and whether they will get the chance to do meaningful work.
Ms Adams says she is grateful the school has opened its heart and mind and is creating real opportunities for people with disabilities, who are often overlooked.
“It’s fantastic. I’m just really proud of [my daughter] and just can’t wait for the future to see where it takes her,” she said.
Ms Dillon’s mother, Marilyn Dillon, says the new job means everything to her daughter. Her only regret is that it couldn’t be five days a week, due to limited government funding.
“She wakes me up in the morning, ‘get out of bed Mum we’ve got to go to school’,” she says.
“She loves it, she enjoys coming here and if Tiana’s happy, I’m happy.”