On May 25, seven interns graduated from a program called Project SEARCH – and all seven have job offers. In her six years as a Project SEARCH instructor, this is a first for Laura Anderson.
Project SEARCH is a year-long employment prep program for young people with disabilities that takes place entirely at the workplace. In this case, for these seven interns, that workplace was Gundersen Health System.
Defining a future
“This program helps students define a future. The goal is to help them figure out what they like to do, what they’re good at and in which kind of work environment they’ll find success,” Anderson said. “For nine months, we focus on how to become an employee. Interns are also building soft skills and working toward independence.”
Sterling Solberg – and his mom Sheryl – understand the importance this graduation day represents. Last year, Sterling, who is on the autism spectrum, graduated from Project SEARCH.
“These are kinds of programs we need,” Sheryl said. “Sterling is so capable. We are big cheerleaders for this program.”
Project SEARCH began in 1996 at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center when the director of Cincinnati Children’s Emergency Department felt that, because the hospital served individuals with developmental disabilities, they should commit to hiring people in this group. She partnered with a special education director and together, they launched Project SEARCH. Now, there are more than 700 chapters across the country.
How Project SEARCH works
The School District of Holmen holds the license for this chapter of Project SEARCH, but it’s open to young adults age 18 to 21 from any school district. Interns come from as far as Prairie du Chien and Independence.
Students complete three 10-week rotations in three different departments. They learn hands-on skills while working in their departments and soft skills during an hour of daily classroom time.
“I have a passion for teaching about transition,” said Anderson, who, in addition to being a Project SEARCH instructor, is a special education teacher at Holmen High School. “Our kids have challenges, but they also have lots of abilities. We help employers see that.”
Anderson recruits both students to intern in the program and departments within Gundersen to host them – noting that Gundersen provides the training ground but isn’t required to hire interns at the end of the program. This year, departments like inpatient pharmacy, post-anesthesia care unit, laundry, maintenance and food service agreed to participate.
“Our interns cleaned and sanitized rooms, filled nurse’s orders and even delivered medications,” Anderson said.
Success after graduation
During Sterling’s internship, he spent time in Central Services, inpatient pharmacy and maintenance. Following his internship, he was offered a job in Central Services, that department’s first-ever hire.
Upon this year’s graduation, interns will move onto jobs at UW-La Crosse’s maintenance department and local health care centers. Two interns have accepted jobs at Gundersen.
“What we do is so different from school. …it doesn’t feel like school at all,” Anderson said. “Through these nine months, these students have matured, grown up and are ready to become employees.”
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