Posted Date: 11/28/2023
Matthew Watts grins with pride as he meticulously tends to the tables at Rabbit Patch, a local restaurant in downtown Atlanta. Matthew, a student in Atlanta High School’s Rabbit Ranch program, is discovering the joy of work thanks to the collaboration between the school and the restaurant.
David Watts, who moved to Atlanta from Plano with his family, sees Rabbit Patch as more than just a restaurant. It’s a place where his son Matthew can move toward greater independence.
“Previously, he’s been more in a classroom setting,” Watts said. “So this is really good for him to get used to working with people and realizing that his actions can affect others.”
Terry Anderson's son, Vance, shared a similar experience. He began working at Rabbit Patch while he was a student at Atlanta High School. He now attends Barnabas Prep, a college for students with disabilities in Branson, Missouri. While home for the summer, he was able to work at Rabbit Patch.
“On his first day back, he was excited to come to work because he loves it,” Anderson said. “I think it makes him feel worthwhile. Because when he was working here, people would tip him, but it’s less about the money. I think it was about the acceptance in the community and that he was doing something worthwhile.”
Vance's job at Rabbit Patch became a stepping stone toward college and independence.
“Coming here gave him self-worth,” Anderson said. “So when he went to college, he was ready to be on his own. On his first day of college, I stood there crying, and he said, ‘See ya,’ and walked away.”
The Watts carefully chose Atlanta as their new home, considering the services available for Matthew.
“We decided to stay in Texas because of all the services, but we chose this area because of the small-town feel,” Watts said. “While we were looking, we stopped in here for lunch one day, and it just seemed like the right place.”
They were particularly drawn to the Rabbit Ranch program run by Becky Hearn, which integrates special needs students into the community.
“Mrs. Becky was instrumental in getting him started in the program right away,” Watts said. “Considering the size of Plano versus the size of Atlanta’s school district, they have really done a lot and worked hard to integrate him into the program and help his development. Becky is really dedicated to not only him but to all her kids.”
For Mrs. Becky, working with students is her passion.
“I love to watch them grow and become independent, functioning adults with the help of the community and our partner businesses,” she said.
Both families appreciate Rabbit Patch working with the students.
“I really appreciate what Rabbit Patch is doing here,” Watts said. “They certainly didn’t have to allow him to come up here. They took a bit of a chance doing that, but now they know he’ll do his job. It’s nice being in a small town. People are much more patient than they would be in a larger town.”
Jan Carter, the owner of Rabbit Patch and a teacher at Atlanta Primary School, understands the importance of providing real-world experiences for special needs students.
“We feel that everyone should have the opportunity to at least try,” Carter said. “Our special needs friends get the opportunity to work and see what it is like in the real world. It offers a real-life environment where they can learn and interact with customers.”