I don’t even know this bright-eyed young woman, but every time I hear her squeal of joy and see the pride spill out of her between bursts of laughter, my heart tingles and I get that “I’m so happy for you, I could cry” lump in my throat. Meredith landed a job at Applebee’s, and while that may seem like a small accomplishment to the average person, to Meredith it was so much more. Meredith has Down syndrome, and after months of hard work an employer saw her for her qualifications. They didn’t focus on any limitations.
Many readers don’t know this about me (mainly because – to me – it doesn’t make me who I am, and so I don’t broadcast it), but I grew up with a disability. I know what it is to be overlooked because I don’t fit into a specific mold. So, when I learned of Meredith’s story and felt her happiness, I understood that feeling more strongly than I can put into words.
“As a teacher, you see your students come and go. You rarely hear from them again, so you can’t see how well they’re doing. That’s the cool thing about this program, you get to see the end result and share their successes!” – Tim Burns instructor, Project SEARCH
At the heart of Meredith’s story is Project SEARCH. It was founded in 1996 at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and has received recognition both nationally and internationally for the training and preparation the program provides to young adults with disabilities. Today – under the leadership of J. Erin Riehle and Susie Rutkowski – there are more than 400 Project Search sites, which span across 45 states and into Canada, England, Scotland, and Ireland.
As much as I’d love to travel to Ireland, I was just as thrilled to spend an afternoon with some of the key players for Project SEARCH right here in Eau Claire. The Project SEARCH family is made up of several talented individuals (who all gave me a very warm welcome), but I had the opportunity to chat most with Tim Burns, program instructor, and Jennifer Steffes, Mayo Clinic Health System project specialist and Project SEARCH liaison.
Together, they helped me more deeply understand Project SEARCH and how it works. In a nutshell, it’s a nine-month internship program for young adults (ages 18-21) with disabilities. The goal of the program is to help these young men and women find “integrated and competitive employment.” It’s targeted to reach those who have the skills to obtain a job but may need additional training and education in order to be successful in the workforce and maintain employment. Last year (the program’s first year), 11 interns participated. This year, they’ll welcome another group of 11. Burns works with them to develop self-advocacy, teamwork, and financial literacy skills. “One of the important things I remind my interns of is that this isn’t school,” Burns says. “My main mantra is ‘PB’ – or Professional Behavior – in the workplace.”
What sets Project SEARCH apart from other programs? “It’s the collaboration!” Steffes says. “We work with programs and services that are already in place, so we’re not duplicating services.” Mayo Clinic Health System provides the classroom and internship services, the Eau Claire Area School District provides the instructor, Community Link, INC and TMG-IRIS Consultant Agency provide long-term support, and the family liaison, Karen Peikert, provides family insight. In Wisconsin alone, 89 percent of individuals who complete the program find employment. Meredith is still with Applebee’s and continues to grow in her position, adding new skills to her plate on a regular basis!
And it’s not just the interns who benefit from the program. Mayo Clinic Health System employees do, too. “The support from the Mayo Clinic Health System staff has been overwhelming,” Steffes shares. “One of the employees told me that, after working with the interns, her husband noted that she’d always come home from work beaming. Working with Project SEARCH interns has completely changed her outlook on work and her job! They added such joy to her day and rejuvenated her spirit!”
For Burns, one of the most-rewarding aspects of Project SEARCH is seeing how much the interns grow in both maturity and confidence. “As a teacher, you see your students come and go,” he says. “You rarely hear from them again, so you can’t see how well they’re doing. That’s the cool thing about this program, you get to see the end result and share their successes!”
To try to encapsulate everything that Project SEARCH does for these young people and everyone involved in a few words is an impossible task. When I first started working on this story, I honestly thought Project SEARCH was just another program among hundreds. I’m so grateful to Mayo Clinic Health System and all of those who brought the project to Eau Claire. Because of Project SEARCH and the businesses that openly hire people with disabilities in the Chippewa Valley, all the “Merediths” out there can be confident. They don’t have to (and shouldn’t) try to fit into a “normal mold” in order to be successful.
Marie Anthony is a coffee fanatic who finds that at least two cups a day does a body good. It’s probably why she spends most late nights writing instead of sleeping.