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School gives students ACCESS to a broader world

Jenny Adams had been teaching at ACCESS, a school for kids with developmental delays, and language and learning disabilities, for nearly a decade when she and other hearts behind ACCESS decided they wanted to do more for the students after they graduate.

In many situations, once a student left ACCESS, there was no follow up. Mrs. Adams had learned about Project Search, a program that trains students for the next phase in life, and in 2013, she was able to start a Project SEARCH program site in Arkansas. Project SEARCH Arkansas: ACCESS Initiative has been open for nearly four years.

“Young adults were graduating from ACCESS, and we really wanted to help them with that next step of getting employment,” said Mrs. Adams, director of Project SEARCH Arkansas.

“They’d still need a lot of support in that area. They gain a lot of really great skills, but they need job coaching and assistance once they leave,” Mrs. Adams said. “It grew out of the need for our young adults, to help them find jobs when they left.”

Mrs. Adams launched Project SEARCH in 2013 through the University of Arkansas for Medical Science. Over the past three years, Arkansas Children’s Hospital and CHI St. Vincent in Hot Springs have joined the program.

Mrs. Adams and her SEARCH colleagues choose interns through an assessment and interview process. Each intern is assigned to one of the hospitals.

The nine-month internship (August through May) places students in three-month rotations in different departments of the hospital. Their day starts and ends with classroom time. SEARCH coaches teach the interns about hunting for a job, writing a resume, and interviewing for a job, among other things. Upon graduation, the coaches help them find a job. They accompany each graduate to his new job and assists in teaching what the job requires. Project SEARCH job coaches follow up with graduates for five years, supporting them at work, getting reports from employers, and helping search for a new job if necessary.

Internationally, hospitals aren’t the only companies that participate in Project SEARCH, but are common because of the wide array of services and experience available. Project SEARCH program has partnered with Walmart distribution centers, hotels, and zoos.

“Most are in hospitals because hospitals are mini-cities,” Ms. Adams said. In hospitals, interns learn  about maintenance, groundskeeping, food services, retail, and actual hospital services, such as sterilizing surgical implements and setting up trays for surgeons. The interns learn to work with others who are outside their normal environment; co-workers provide a natural support for the Project SEARCH interns.

“We provide some job coaching, but the goal is always independence,” Ms. Adams said. “Our job coaches put into place what they need to be independent while they’re working, and then we try to step back our assistance …”

Project SEARCH doesn’t create jobs for the interns. It prepares them to compete with everyone else.

“They’re going up against any individual in the community that’s looking for a job at all these different places,” said Erin Riley, job development manager at Project SEARCH. “We assist them with filling out these applications and creating those resumes, but at the end of the day, it’s them. They go in, and they interview for that job. And we assist them along the way, but we don’t interject in the interviews.”

Project SEARCH Arkansas has seen 48 graduates in its three and a half years, and 47 of those graduates have found employment. “A lot of those jobs are full-time with benefits,” Mrs. Adams said.

The coaches guide the interns to look for jobs that match their skill. “You’ve got to find the right environment, you’ve got to find the right type of co-workers, you’ve got to find the right type of job for them to be really successful for the long term,” Mrs. Adams said. “We don’t just apply for any job posting that comes up on the internet, because that’s not going to be the right fit for them, and it’s not going to work out. We have to wait until we find the right position.”

The search for the right job requires collaboration among the intern, the intern’s parents, the intern’s job coach, and Miss Riley.

A goal of Project SEARCH is that its interns don’t require any more supervision than other employees. That’s where the job coaches come back into play. Job coaches, at a 1-to-4 coach-graduate ratio, train graduates at their new jobs and work out accommodations when they spot a challenge.

Additionally, an employer who wants to add tasks to the graduate’s job can contact the job coach, who will train the former intern.

“It’s good for the businesses, because [instead of] what would traditionally be a high-turnover position … , they’re gaining loyalty and saving money,” said Krysten Levin, marketing and special events manager at Project SEARCH Arkansas. “They’re not going through these training costs over and over again because these employees tend to be more loyal in that type of position.”

Project SEARCH is good for the taxpayer, too, Mrs. Adams said. “A lot of these young adults, if they don’t find jobs, they end up going on governmental assistance. … But if they’re able to gain employment, they’re saving that SSI (Supplementary Security Income) money for 30 (years) to 40 years per intern. That’s a lot of money.”

Some graduates come off their Medicaid benefits entirely, she said.

“They’re assets to the company that they work with. They bring a certain level of energy and excitement, Mrs. Levin said. “Some of our guys are excited to go to work every single day, no matter what they do. [Co-workers] tend to rally around these individuals, and it gives them a purpose as well.”

Other employees become a mentor, Mrs. Adams said. “They get to support these young guys, and that means a lot to them. It kind of makes you want to go to work when you know you’re helping somebody else.”

Mrs. Adams, Ms. Riley, and Mrs. Levin feel the same way.

“It’s just so rewarding to be a part of it,” Ms. Riley said. “These kids, now young adults, … grew up thinking they were different. And they would never have the things that other kids have because they’re different. But their potential is just as great as everybody else’s. Project SEARCH is giving them the opportunity to realize that their potential is as important as everybody else’s, and should be fostered. …”

And even though the program technically ends five years after the interns graduate, the women at Project SEARCH say they’ll be around as long as the graduates will have them.

“You really form a tight bond … ,” Mrs. Adams said. “You just care at that point. It’s just about being a friend.”

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