Working toward better futures

Courtesy photo: Ever since it came to Brookings in 2013, Project Search has helped students who have learning or intellectual disabilities learn crucial job skills and even start working a job, with most maintaining employment after they complete the program. Project Search is a part of the Brookings School District, although it’s helped students from other area school districts as well.

BROOKINGS – Jobs are a defining part of everyone’s lives, but for some, finding and holding a job can be hard, especially if they have an intellectual or learning disability. 

For six years now, Project Search has worked to help graduating high schoolers with a variety of disabilities find a job of their own.

Project Search is an international organization that started at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 1996. It first came to Brookings in 2013. At that time, Larry Ayres was a fourth-grade teacher at Camelot Intermediate School, but when he heard about a position with the new district-affiliated program opening up, he researched the group and liked what he found out.

He applied, and became the project coordinator for Project Search, one of its two-person staff. He and skills trainer Kyrsten Zimmerman built the local Project Search program into what it is today. 

Project Search is a partnership of many agencies working together to assist students who have disabilities so that they can transition into a work environment and eventually gain competitive employment, which they define as working at least 16 hours a week alongside their typical peers for at least minimum wage.

Although it’s technically a Brookings School District program, its offices are located on South Dakota State University’s campus, an important thing since most of its student participants, called interns, start off working someplace on campus.

There’s a set of criteria for who can apply and participate in the program. First, the student must have completed all the academic requirements for graduation from high school and be between 18 and 21 years old.

Despite being a Brookings School District program, their interns aren’t exclusively from the Brookings School District. For example, this year, the program also has interns from Watertown, Elkton, Flandreau, Arlington and Pipestone.

“They have to be attached to a school district; they cannot have taken their diplomas and graduated high school. What they in essence do is defer their diploma for a year to be in the program,” Ayres said.

The disabilities that the interns have are varied, including a variety of learning disabilities and some who have Down syndrome.

They should have previous successful experience in a work environment, paid or unpaid, have basic independent living skills, and be able to communicate effectively, among other things.

“There is an interview process. You go through an interview and a work simulation and we use the national Project Search criteria to select our interns,” Ayres said. “Our driving question when we’re interviewing somebody is can we prepare this individual for competitive employment in nine months.”

Over that time, the interns work through three 10- to 12-week job rotations while they’re in the program, with a bit more independence and responsibility being granted with each new rotation. The goal is to have the interns employed before their year is over. If they aren’t, they continue with support through Career Advantage, which works to help them to find employment and continue job coaching.

This year, they have six interns participating in the program. They average around seven interns in a typical year, although they did hit a record high last year with 12.

In Project Search’s first five years of existence in Brookings, it’s been able to serve a total of 34 interns. Of the 34 interns they’ve served, 30 successfully completed the program, 29 of whom found competitive employment.

When they join the program, for five days of the week, the interns report to their host business at SDSU and they learn employability skills in a classroom-like setting, and they learn job skills by working at a partnering business.

Some of the things they learn while in the classroom setting are team building, self-advocacy, financial literacy, and health and wellness, among other topics.

Interns get their start working on campus at SDSU, mostly finding employment in some capacity through Aramark, the campus food service provider. They’ve also hired a large number of Project Search interns after they complete the program, Ayres said. “So in addition to SDSU being a really good host site, Aramark has been a good partner for us as well.”

Other places interns have found work on campus include the Wellness Center, the University Bookstore and the Student Union.

Whether they find work through Aramark or another place on campus, there’s still a wide variety of work and opportunity to be found, Ayres said, adding that they do try to find something in line with an intern’s interests.

“We might have an intern who’s really interested in something in particular, and if we don’t have a rotation that fits that, we will reach out to a department and try to develop a relationship with them so the intern can get experience in an area they’re interested in,” Ayres said. “I think we have a good reputation as a good program, so it’s gotten much easier to develop these relationships now than it was in the beginning.”

One of the reasons Ayres has stuck with the program for six years is because it is rewarding to see these interns succeed and find competitive employment. Some of the places away from campus that interns have found work include Bel Brands, Lewis and 3M, locally. Of course, some interns have moved elsewhere and have found and maintained jobs at their new towns. Others have gained enough independence to move into their own apartments as well.

“Ninety-seven percent of our interns who finished our program have gotten jobs. Parents are excited, where they might not have seen competitive employment as an option for their son or daughter. They come to campus, go through our tour and see the interns we’re currently working with, interns that we have worked with that are on campus, and they see that possibility,” Ayres said.

A lot of what they do comes down to giving the interns not only the skills they need, but the confidence to go out independently. Sometimes, the independence component is just as hard of a task for the parents to come to terms with as it is the interns.

He knows that firsthand from his experience with his daughter, who has Down syndrome. She went through the program last year.

“It’s painful as a parent to let go,” Ayres said. “It’s hard enough with your child without a disability to watch them go off to college and become more independent, but it’s even harder when you have a child with a disability to let them spread their wings a little bit.”

For more information, Ayres encouraged people to check their website, www.sdsubrookingsprojectsearch.org. Applications for next year can be found there and are due Feb. 15, 2019.

Contact Eric Sandbulte at [email protected]

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