LIMA — A school-to-work program is helping young adults with physical and developmental disabilities transition from high school to the workplace, through a series of internships designed to teach communication and soft skills needed to maintain employment.
The program, Project SEARCH, brings post-secondary high school students from Apollo Career Center out to Mercy Health-St. Rita’s Medical Center for a year of internships and training in the hospital’s gift shop, fitness center, volunteer office and other entry-level jobs.
Students spend their first internship working in a department of their choice, after a series of assessments to determine their skills and interests.
They are then assigned a second and third internship at the hospital to expand their skillsets and prepare for the workforce outside the hospital.
Students work closely with mentors and career coaches to learn tasks and identify accommodations needed to perform the job. By the six-month mark, students start meeting with a job developer to begin their job search.
Leigh Taylor, a Project SEARCH instruction coordinator for Apollo Career Center, said the biggest challenges for her students, who are often shy, are interviewing and social skills.
“We work on what’s appropriate in the workplace and what’s not,” she said. “Coming straight from high school, it is a different stomping ground for them, so we try to (help them) understand, ‘What can I do, what can’t I do.’”
Nearly 90% of Project SEARCH students who are placed at St. Rita’s find a job within the hospital or community, according to a press release.
One Project SEARCH graduate, for example, wanted to work in a factory, so Taylor said he was assigned to the dish room, where he gained first-hand experience with repetitious tasks. He landed a job with a local factory soon after.
“He’s still working at the factory,” Taylor said. “That helped him out to understand speed and consistency and repetition.”
St. Rita’s has acted as the host site for Allen County’s Project SEARCH program, offered through Apollo Career Center alongside Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities and Marimor Industries, for eight years.
“It’s such an incredible experience for them and for us, to be able to show our compassion and our human dignity to these kids,” said Ronda Lehman, president of the Mercy Health Lima market. “Knowing that we’re able to help them and their families with this unknown period for so many of them, where they’re learning some job skills (but) need a bit more experience and assistance to find out where their abilities are best suited.”