Like a professional news anchor before a once-in-a-lifetime interview, 21-year-old Katie Ryan sat at attention behind her desk, patiently waiting for her cue.
Antonio DiCesare, standing behind a camera trained on Ryan, counted down from five into his headset.
With little formality, Ryan dove into the questions she had prepared for her guest, Sandra Discepolo, a retired Norwood teacher and a volunteer at the Women’s Community Committee thrift shop.
Where was Discepolo’s first job, Ryan asked, and what advice did she have for young people?
“Don’t be afraid to do more than is expected of you,” Discepolo answered.
It’s a lesson Ryan and other students in the Norwood school district’s LEAD (“Learn, Explore, Achieve, Develop”) transition program seem to have already taken to heart.
Having graduated from Norwood High School, LEAD students, all with special needs and between ages 18 and 22, spend six hours every weekday during the school year learning skills they can apply to jobs, social situations, and life in general. They volunteer at local businesses and nonprofits, like the thrift shop, and some -- including Ryan -- have part-time jobs.
Once a month, they come to the Norwood Public Access Television studio housed in their alma mater to tape an episode of “LEAD Update,” a talk show on which they discuss their lives and their interests, and gain experience with conversation and presenting themselves in a professional manner.
The idea for the show came last fall after field trips to the station so the students could record mock job interviews and view their performance, said LEAD teacher Rob LaDue, who worked with station manager Meghan Corbett to create the student-produced show. LEAD doesn’t pay anything to have the show produced; the costs involved are paid for by the station, just like any other public access program.
Eight episodes were taped last school year, LaDue said, with the same number expected by the end of this school year. The first episode was only eight minutes long, but now, Corbett said, they average between 30 minutes and an hour.
“LEAD Update” gives the students a platform to talk about whatever they find interesting, such as their favorite movies of the year or their family’s vacation to Jamaica. Recurring segments include Ryan’s interviews with community members, such as the general manager of the Norwood Residence Inn and a reporter with the Norwood Transcript & Bulletin newspaper, as well as DiCesare’s “Sports Minute,” in which he discusses Patriots and Celtics news and interviews Norwood High School players and coaches.
While the students differ in abilities, they each play a part in the show’s taping, taking turns in front of and behind the camera.
“Nobody starts out with the same level of interest or ability or comfort with everything. But having done it over the course of months, we’ve totally seen individual students grow and improve and be able to speak up more,” LaDue said.
When the show began, for example, Nick Caramanica would not speak on camera. But at the Dec. 15 taping that included Ryan’s interview with Discepolo, the 21-year-old listed his five favorite musical instruments, and held up signs thanking LEAD’s sponsors. He sometimes even sings the Norwood High song to close the show.
When Ryan’s mother, Theresa Ryan, first heard about “LEAD Update,” she wasn’t sure that her daughter would want to participate. But Katie’s initial shyness has given way to excitement about the show; she watches the episodes on DVD again and again, her mother said.
“She’s never liked any attention on her, so this has been a great learning experience for her, because it’s given her so much confidence, and the feeling of accomplishment,” Ryan said of her daughter, who works part-time at the Big Y supermarket in town.
DiCesare, 19, said his on-camera performance has improved since taping his first “Sports Minute.” He now speaks slower and looks up from his script more often, he said. He’s learned to emulate his favorite sports broadcasters, and wants to be one himself someday.
“When I come here, I feel like I just know what I’m doing,” he said.
Norwood Public Access employees said that they, too, have enjoyed their relationship with LEAD students.
“It’s just so rewarding to be able to give back to these kids, and help them. And for them to be able to be on TV, on our channel, they feel like they’re movie stars, and to me, that feels like everything,” Corbett said.
“Megan has created something real special for us, special for the kids, and it’s amazing what they do once you put a microphone on them,” said Jack Tolman, the station’s executive director. “You put a microphone on them, and they’re on camera, and it opens a whole new world for them.”
Though LaDue’s students leave the transition program once they turn 22, their appearances on “LEAD Update” have given them something they can be proud of and show to others for years to come, he says.
He hopes, too, that “LEAD Update” has afforded his students a chance to be role models for others living with disabilities in Norwood.
“It allows us to give back to the community, and support the community that supports us,” LaDue said.