DANVILLE — Sam Simonson doesn't hesitate giving an answer about how often he looks forward to visiting Vermilion Manor Nursing Home.
"Every day," says the junior at Catlin High School, who spends a couple hours five days a week visiting and helping residents and staff at the county-owned nursing home on Catlin-Tilton Road.
Simonson and another Catlin High classmate, senior Jason Shanks, participate in Vermilion Association for Special Education's STEP program, which gives them opportunities to learn independence and skills outside the classroom.
"It gets them out and lets them learn what the real world is about," said Cuba Poulson, the special-services aide at Catlin High who goes to Vermilion Manor with the boys each day. The boys attend high school classes in the morning, and in the afternoon, they drive over to the nursing home where they work for about two hours.
Simonson and Shanks have been working at Vermilion Manor since the beginning of the school year, and in that time, have formed some close bonds with some of the residents. They visit with them, talking or playing games, take them to therapy and assist the activities staff in various ways, like getting residents from their rooms to the lunch area for a singing program.
"They crack us up sometimes," Simonson said.
Shanks said some of the residents have become like family to them, but they're all favorites. He said it doesn't matter what mood they're in, they're all his favorites.
Illustrating that family atmosphere, the boys have taken pictures of many of the residents and arranged them in a cut-out of a tree — a "family tree" — that hangs on the wall next to the activities office.
Poulson said the experience teaches the boys some tough life lessons as well. They recently lost a resident they had been around a lot so far this school year.
"We miss her; she was funny," said Poulson, who added that she too has bonded with many of the residents.
Simonson has bonded with one resident in particular, Creola Kuirkendall.
He makes a point to visit her and makes sure she gets to the activity room or wherever the action is for the day. He recently bought her and another resident scarves to wear when they sit outside.
Even when he's working with some of the other residents, Simonson doesn't let Kuirkendall get too far out of his sight.
Simonson calls Kuirkendall "ornery," which Kuirkendall admits is true.
"He is a nice guy," Kuirkendall said.
Sam's dad, Randy Simonson, said his son is very social and likes being around people.
"So I think it's a perfect job for him," he said. "He talks about a couple of the people almost every day. I think it's very good for him."
His mom, Paula Simonson, said she's not surprised that Sam has bonded with residents at Vermilion Manor, because he's always had friends of all different ages and enjoys being around people. He also enjoys having a job that he can talk about to others like everyone else does, she said, and loves getting a paycheck. She takes him to the bank to puts his check in an account and get some cash. He's learning to budget his money and save up for something he wants, she said.
It's also an opportunity for him to do something without his parents, she said, and an opportunity in which he's challenged with more responsibility.
"It's good for someone else to push him a little harder than we would," she said. "I just think it's a neat program and a neat opportunity for him."