Program prepares special need students for work

By: 
The Associated Press

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — Ask Kelby Woolf what he likes most about his internship with the Ivinson Memorial Hospital Foundation, and the likeliest answer includes a mention of business cards.

Woolf is interning with the IMH Foundation through Project SEARCH, a nationwide program that connects students with disabilities to local businesses, aiming to provide real-world work experience for students recently graduated or nearing graduation from high school.

Project SEARCH came to Wyoming in August. The 21-year-old program has already spread across the country and internationally.

Woolf is one of the program’s three inaugural beneficiaries in the state.

“Project SEARCH teaches me to be accurate (and) work hard,” Woolf said. “I’ve learned data entry, how to be safe at work and how to be a good co-worker.”

Woolf was adopted into the foundation’s four-member staff — given his own desk and business cards, a great source of pride for him — and assists with events and planning, data entry, online research and donor records.

“His primary duty is helping with our donor database, so those are always in need of continual update,” said Beth Jones, executive director of the IMH Foundation. “He’s just been a rock star.”

Woolf is also developing more general workplace skills, which can be applicable in most jobs.

“He’s also learning a lot about office etiquette — when it’s appropriate to pop into an office and what his role is in a meeting, and not monopolizing the meeting — and acknowledging the ideas of others at the table and presenting his own,” Jones said. “He’s really worked hard on that.”

Woolf and the other Project SEARCH interns at IMH begin their day in a classroom, learning skills that will make them more employable in the future, said Megan Friderich, Project SEARCH instructor.

“We work on functional skills about budgeting and healthy living and exercise,” she said. “We talk about employability skills. And we practice job interviews. We work on emails and using technology.”

Timmy Frazier, an intern working in the hospital’s dietary department, said he learns a lot in the classroom, but overall the internship is helping prepare him for greater independence.

“I think Project SEARCH is helping me to get prepared and helping me to get things like a checklist,” Frazier said. “I’m planning to have a checklist when I go to college.”

Washing tables and chairs is a good job, Frazier said, because he finds it calming.

“I am old enough to take care of myself,” he said. “I’m really good at staying calm, and it’s really easy to focus on my problems.”

Frazier said he still has to think about what kind of work he wants to do in the future, but Project SEARCH intern Jacob Kersey said he knows what he wants to do and his current duties at IMH are preparing him for it.

“I was thinking about going to work as a dishwasher at some type of hotel like the Hilton or Holiday Inn, even Motel 8,” Kersey said. “I’m doing materials management right now, stocking the ER storeroom and the nursery storeroom. I like it because sometimes I earn a cafeteria lunch when I do a good job being a hard-working employee.”

Friderich said the program would continue and hopefully grow.

“This will be for students with disabilities (in their) last year of high school, so we can really focus on job skills and then find them competitive, integrated employment in the community, working 16-20 hours a week,” Friderich said.

She added the program was lucky to have IMH as a partner.

“That was kind of one of the challenges, finding a business in the community to partner with,” Friderich said. “And Ivinson has always been so dedicated to serving the community.”

The interns are slated to rotate between the three departments at IMH, getting a chance to try out each of the jobs currently worked by the others.

Co-workers said the interns were helpful and, more than that, brought a new perspective into their departments.

“(Woolf) is definitely a motivational influence, every single day,” Jones said. “It is an amazing project. Where we thought we would be coaching to these interns, the interns are actually teaching us.”

Project SEARCH was born in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 1996, when Emergency Department Director Erin Riehle recognized her department worked with many developmentally disabled individuals and committed to hiring some of these people to fill high-turnover, entry-level positions.

With the help of Great Oaks Career Campuses Special Education Director Susie Rutkowski, Riehle began providing on-the-job training experiences for people with disabilities. Project SEARCH has since spread to 300 sites, in most states and throughout Canada, Great Britain, Ireland and Australia, according to the program’s official site.

“We want everybody to have the opportunity for meaningful employment,” Friderich said. “That’s the goal of the program.”

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