For Marta Durbin, a catering manager at Mellow Mushroom pizzeria in New Albany, the best part of her day during an April 3 shift was the time she spent with the two New Albany High School students who assist her in opening the restaurant Wednesday mornings.

The students, Durbin said, always are cheerful, and the extra sets of hands are a plus, too.

"They're always so happy to help," she said.

Three students also help open the restaurant Tuesdays, Durbin said.

They work for an hour, completing such tasks as putting out chairs and plates and refilling napkins and Parmesan cheese jars.

Their work is part of a New Albany High School program to help students with special needs build independence with employment-skills training in a natural setting, said Amy Nicely, transition specialist for the New Albany-Plain Local School District.

District spokesman Patrick Gallaway said the district always has a program for students to gain employment-related skills, but it has expanded in scope over the past few years.

Nicely, who is responsible for finding locations at which students may work, said the students volunteer at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center's Health and Fitness Center at the Philip Heit Center for Healthy New Albany, the New Albany branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, PetPeople and First & Main of New Albany in addition to Mellow Mushroom and throughout the school district campus, such as in building cafeterias, the administrative office, the district greenhouse and the New Albany Food Pantry. The pantry, which is under the umbrella of Healthy New Albany, has operated out of the district's annex building at 79 N. High St. for two years, according to Gallaway.

All of those organizations and businesses are within walking distance of the district campus.

About 20 students are in the program, Nicely said.

Nicely said district staff members talk with the students and their families to determine job interests before placing them in work environments.

For example, at the Heit Center at 150 W. Main St., students perform such tasks as laundry, vacuuming and cleaning mirrors, she said, while at PetPeople, a pet-supply store at 160 W. Main St., Suite C, the students stock items on the store floor and tag items with price stickers.

At First & Main of New Albany, a senior-living center at 245 E. Main St., students assist residents with such activities as bean-bag-toss games or puzzles, Nicely said.

The individualized community-employment training, which technically is volunteering but is billed as working for the students in the program, also helps the students gain communication skills and the ability to interact with others in their community, Nicely said.

At the New Albany library branch at 200 Market St., students primarily pull books that library patrons place on reserve, said materials-services supervisor Jeff Test.

"That list can be pretty long, sometimes," he said, but patrons likely would wait longer for their books without the students' help.

Sam Marthaler, an 18-year-old senior, has been volunteering at the library branch since fall.

His favorite books to find? Nonfiction titles, he said, "because they're awesome."

In addition to pulling books from shelves, the student workers also disinfect toys used for storytime events, Test said.

Their work at the library helps them see how other individuals behave in a public setting, he said.

"I think that's a valuable learning experience," he said.

Sadie Jones, a store manager at New Albany's PetPeople, said the two New Albany High School students who volunteer there weekly, Faith Upp and Devin Vale, are beloved members of the store's team.

"The team truly looks forward to working with these two every week and watching their personal growth and development as the year has progressed," she said.

ssole@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekSarah