BROOKINGS – In March 2020, Sarah Ayres was about to interview for her dream job – at the Children’s Museum of South Dakota.
Then a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic happened and the whole world shut down. Now, 15 months later, Sarah has not only interviewed, but begun working part-time at the museum.
At a young age, Sarah, now 23, was diagnosed with Down syndrome. She attended Central Elementary, which housed a special needs pre-school, which is where her fondness for the Children’s Museum (formerly Central Elementary) started.
“It feels like home to me, I’m secure here,” Sarah said, speaking about the now museum. “It’s because my school was here.”
Sarah started working at the museum through the Project Skills program, a paid work experience program for high school students with disabilities in South Dakota. She enjoyed it so much that she started volunteering at the museum during the summer, racking up 834 hours of volunteer work.
After graduating from high school, Sarah went into a program called Project Search.
“Project Search is a program with the school district based completely at South Dakota State University,” Larry Aryes, former coordinator of Project Search and Sarah’s father, said. “People with a disability who have finished all of their high school requirements come to SDSU, where they spend a year on campus and work through job rotations to learn different skills to become competitively employed.”
Sarah went through the program, working at the provost office on campus, Panda Express in the Union, Extreme Pita, and the C-Store. In the provost office, Sarah, along with other interns in the program, sorted the mail, put folders together for incoming freshman, filed paperwork and made copies. The other job rotations involved working the cash register primarily.
“Most transactions are card based (on campus),” Larry explained. “So if someone struggles with making change, very rarely do people use cash.”
After going through the Project Search program, Career Advantage (Advance) helped Sarah land a job with Aramark at SDSU.
“Career Advantage has been a key player in her employment,” Larry said. “Advantage helps them get placed in jobs and have been really committed to helping Project Skills volunteer positions and hiring people.”
Sarah worked for Aramark for two years, working primarily in the market area, cleaning, vacuuming and taking out the trash.
“The trash is so hard, though,” Sarah exclaimed. “It was always overflowing!”
“In her defense, the trash was incredible,” Larry said. “We had an intern, who worked the noon hour at South Dining, take out 74 bags of trash in one shift.”
In April 2021, COVID restrictions began to ease, and the Children’s Museum reached out to Sarah if she would still be interested in working.
“Sarah had said to us over and over again that this is her dream job and she wanted to work at the museum,” Larry said. “She was happy working at Aramark and it was a good job for her, but this was really exciting for her.”
Sarah interviewed for the job but had one thing to ask – would she have to take out the trash?
“During Sarah’s interview she told us that she didn’t like taking out the trash but said she would do it anyway,” guest experience manager Charles Stuart said. “She did a good job with it even though it was outside her comfort zone.”
“We make a point with our interns (at Project Search) that no job is going to be perfect – there will always be something with the job that you won’t like to do but have to do,” Larry added.
The Children’s Museum just recently reopened to guests, which means Sarah is still pretty fresh to her new job. Her duties include walking around to exhibits, making sure toys are picked up and areas are clean, interacting and answering questions that guests may have, and behind-the-scenes cleaning and sanitizing. Sarah also likes to spend time in the art studio, where she will often do projects with kids.
“Well, there’s a lot of work,” Sarah said. “I like makings things clean and neat.”
Sarah plans to work between 10 to 15 hours a week, which works out to about two to three hours a day.
“Sarah does a great job,” Stuart said. “It’s not that she got hired because of her Down syndrome – having her on staff is a blessing for us.”
“There’s a lot of employers who are really good and committed to hiring people with disabilities,” Larry said. “The museum is excellent, and Aramark is also committed to hiring people with disabilities.”
“We like to employee as diverse and inclusive a workforce as we can, whether that’s age, gender, ethnicity or abilities,” Stuart said. “So having Sarah on our staff just fits right into our mission and vision for inspiring play for all kids and all abilities and having as diverse as staff as possible.”
“It’s a testament to the staff that works here for her acceptance, to be just another one of the staff,” Larry said. “I was here the other day and watching her; she was giving the staff a hard time and they were giving her a hard time. It’s just an accepting environment and shows their commitment to diversity and inclusion.”
The Children’s Museum is now open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Reservations are recommended, but walk-ins are welcome, depending on space available. Admission is $9.50. Call the Museum at 605-692-6700 for reservations and/or other questions.
Contact Addison DeHaven at email@example.com.