More confidence, less fear, real-world job skills. Project SEARCH shows young adults with cognitive or physical disabilities how much they can offer local employers.
Project SEARCH equips students such as Justin "JB" Bryant and Michael Hauge to successfully transition from high school to the workforce. This fall, Bryant is training at the Regional Health IT Help Desk. Hauge is learning office skills and how to be a healthier worker in Regional Health's Employee Health and Well-Being department.
By the time they complete Project SEARCH, students ideally have enough training to be employed for at least 16 hours a week, though some students ultimately work full time. Along the way, they gain new social skills and overcome fears about unfamiliar situations and interacting with new people.
"It's amazing the growth we see in our students," said Heather Hoye, Project SEARCH program coordinator. "Our goal is that students will be able to live and contribute to society just like everybody else. It's phenomenal. They see themselves being successful."
Project SEARCH is an international program that was introduced four years ago in Rapid City. It provides intensive job training to young adults ages 18 to 21 through the collaborative efforts of community partners including Regional Health, Rapid City Area Schools, the South Dakota Department of Human Services Vocational Rehabilitation Program and Black Hills Special Services Cooperative.
Project SEARCH is funded by a grant through Vocational Rehabilitation, Hoye said. The program might expand next year to include students from school districts in other Black Hills communities.
Regional Health is the business partner that provides on-the-job training. RCAS identifies students who would benefit from Project SEARCH. Vocational Rehabilitation pays the students a stipend while they're in Project SEARCH, so the training is much like a paid internship, according Kaitlyn Schieffer, organizational-development analyst with Regional Health. She serves as the business liaison for Project SEARCH.
To qualify, students must have an Individualized Education Plan, must be ready for high-school completion, and need to be able to communicate effectively with others in a socially appropriate manner, Schieffer said. Because Project SEARCH is intensive, only a few students are accepted each year. Bryant and Hauge are two of five this year; two more students may be added later, Schieffer said.
"We follow the school-district calendar. That helps make a really good transition from going to school to going to work," Schieffer said. "We try and do three rotations (internships). Each is 10 to 12 weeks. ... It's an opportunity for them to get three different kinds of skill building within a year."
The rotations cater to students' abilities and interests, Schieffer said. Students can train in Information Technology, food and nutrition, environmental services, plant operations and other areas.
"It's figuring out how to tap into interests and skills the student already has and how to develop them. If we don't have a rotation that works, we try to create a new one for them. It's always growing and developing," Schieffer said.
Every day, students have one-on-one mentoring and skills coaching.
"In the afternoon, we all go to class and talk about how our day went, and if something happens we can talk about it and help fix it," Hauge said. "Overall, Project SEARCH has taught me many things that you need to know on the job and in life. it also made me realize how fun a job can be."
"The idea is by the third rotation, students should feel comfortable without needing a whole lot of skills coaching, but support is always there," Schieffer said.
Graduates from the 2017-2018 Project Search have a 70 percent employment rate; graduates from 2016-2017 year have a 100 percent employment rate, Schieffer said.
Hoye said she's seen Project SEARCH transform lives.
"I've watched a young man who lived with his mother ... go from that to complete independence with a full-time job. He just got married and had a child," Hoye said. "As a special-education professional, this is one of the most impactful programs I have ever seen. It impacts students, their families and their community. We are putting students into places they have never been. Inclusion is such a powerful thing."