Unlike most students, Sara Pietig spent much of the 2018 school year outside a traditional classroom. She was working in the birthing center at AdventHealth, completing an internship. Her responsibilities included assembling information packets for the center’s patients and prepping bassinets for new babies.
Sara is one of several students taking part in a pilot program between the Shawnee Mission School District and AdventHealth.
Launched at the start of the 2018-’19 school, Project SEARCH is a career exploration and training program designed for students who have intellectual or developmental disabilities. Developed through a partnership between the district and health system, the program helps participants gain job skills to successfully enter the workplace.
“I really like the program. It’s really neat to get to work in different departments and I’m learning a lot,” Sara said. “The staff has been so friendly, nice and helpful. It would be a great place to work.”
Amy Milroy, director of the Lee Ann Britain Center for children with special needs at AdventHealth, says the key goal of the program is to assist young people with disabilities find meaningful employment.
“These young people have skills and talents to share,” said Milroy, who led the program’s development and implementation at AdventHealth. “We’re helping them find the right fit to be successful and have purpose and meaning in their adulthood.
“This is also an opportunity for everyone who works in our hospital, our visitors and the greater community to learn that people with disabilities are an important part of the workforce. We can lead the way in showing how that can be a win-win for all.”
The year-long school-to-work transition program involves an extensive period of career training and exploration for the students, along with job skills coaching and opportunities for three different internships within the hospital setting.
As students finish their training, some will be hired to fill positions at AdventHealth, while others will find positions at other area businesses.
The idea for Project SEARCH was introduced to AdventHealth leaders by former Shawnee Mission School District superintendent Jim Hinson, after the district’s director of special education. Jackie Chapman, introduced the concept to him. This specific program is based on a similar model launched at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 1996.
Students attend the program for a full school year on site at Shawnee Mission Health. This allows students the opportunity to work internships while still participating in school lessons. Curriculum specific to the program includes navigating the workplace, social and communication skills, job search and interview skills and financial literacy.
Each school/work day, the students spend their first hour in the on-site classroom, followed by approximately five hours of work in their intern positions. The day ends with a final hour in the classroom. In addition, each student is assigned a mentor who works individually with them on unique goals and projects.
Currently seven students are enrolled in the program, which has a capacity for 10 students.
The hospital provides numerous options for internship positions throughout several departments. Some of these include nutrition and environmental services, central sterilization, central distribution, the early learning center, courier services and the birthing center.
Project SEARCH brings hope for a more secure employment future to program participants, and guidance for their parents, as well. While developing the program, the district talked with families to learn what they viewed as priorities for their children who have special needs to live independent adult lives.
“We were unsure of what path to take with our daughter after high school,” said Dana Adams, mother of Alexis Adams, a participant. “After learning about and being accepted into the Project SEARCH program, we feel that this has been the absolute best possible opportunity that we could have asked for our daughter.”
Kristie Pietig, Sara’s mother, has enjoyed watching her daughter grow through her experience in the program.
“We’re thrilled with Project SEARCH,” she said. “Our daughter has matured so much in independence and taking on responsibilities. The program has provided a real-world work environment that is very supportive.”
With Project SEARCH in place, program leaders are now looking at the future and have plans to expand the program’s reach into the greater business and employment community.
“Through providing a diverse work environment and creating opportunities for those with disabilities, AdventHealth has been a great role model for other businesses,” said Christy Ziegler, Shawnee Mission School District assistant superintendent for personalized learning and interim director of special education.
“Our goal is to develop more opportunities like this with other business partners, who can also serve this vision and culture across our community. It just takes role models to step forward and provide these opportunities and accessibility.”