Around noon on a recent Tuesday, seventh- and eighth-graders at Kraybill Mennonite School walked into the multipurpose room at the school, stopping at a long table to pick up a hot lunch.
Standing behind the table were members of the "lunch crew" from Manheim Central High School. Clad in aprons, hats and food service gloves, they spooned up pasta, mixed vegetables and watermelon onto the students' plates.
On this day, the lunch and cleanup crew consisted of five special-needs students in Manheim Central's life skills support class who are learning the real-world skills needed in food service work. Led by teacher Gail Troutman and accompanied by aides and an occupational therapist, this class, with a total of eight students, visits Kraybill on Mondays and Tuesdays.
On Wednesdays or Thursdays, students in Manheim Central's Intro to School to Work class, led by teacher Kim Hatfield, serve lunch at Kraybill. Kraybill parents volunteer for lunch duty on the remaining two days.
A food vendor delivers the food to the school, which does not have a cafeteria. After students are handed their lunch plates, they return to their classrooms to eat.
The cooperative project between Manheim Central's special education program and Kraybill, a private Christian school in Mount Joy, began last fall, when Kraybill began serving hot lunches to its 120 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade.
Both Troutman and Kraybill's principal, M.J. Smith, described the public-private partnership as a "win-win" situation that benefits both the special-needs and Kraybill students.
According to Smith and Sarah Schaefer, a Kraybill parent and board member, Kraybill's board decided to begin the hot-lunch program as part of the transition to becoming independent from the Lancaster Mennonite School organization. The plan is to keep the school open despite decreased enrollment.
Other incentives, such as lowering tuition rates and adding Spanish instruction and before-school child care, have helped reverse that trend, Smith and Schaefer said.
Kraybill will become fully independent on Monday, July 1, which is also the start of the school's 70th year, Smith pointed out.
"It's been a vital part of the community. It's the center of life for many people. They just have great memories of being here," she said.
The school never had a hot-lunch program before. "We wanted to provide that option," said Smith.
As the possible lunch program was being discussed, Schaefer, who is supervisor of pupil services for the Cornwall-Lebanon School District, suggested that special-needs students could be of help while also getting some much-needed work experience.
Local districts were contacted, and Manheim Central was able to sign on.
In addition to serving the food, the Manheim Central students count and wrap silverware in napkins based on how many students sign up for a hot lunch on any given day. On a recent Tuesday, student Isaiah Collins busied himself at a chalkboard, recording the count for each class.
Student Dustin Martin said he enjoys wrapping up the utensils. Kayla Boyer likes doing the dishes. After finishing their own lunches, Kayla and Isaiah, accompanied by paraeducator Amy Dissinger and personal care assistant Karen Beck, collected bins of dishes and took them to the kitchen to be cleaned off and loaded into dishwashers, with Dustin joining them for that task.
Troutman pointed out that Kayla had the chance to do dishwashing work at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. "The skills that she's been learning here are opening her to some other opportunities," Troutman said.
While Troutman's students may not have the same communication skills as other students, she has seen them grow socially through their interaction with the Kraybill students. It's like "welcoming a friend that we see every Monday and Tuesday," she added.
At Christmastime, the Kraybill students made a big thank-you poster for the Manheim students, which hangs in their classroom.
As Troutman put it, "It's now stretched our community to include (people) outside of our own school."