Empowering program: Project SEARCH training special needs students for workforce

Now in its third year, Project SEARCH combines on-the-job training and life skills to enhance students’ opportunities for competitive employment after high school.

Do you know a student with a developmental disability?

If so, they could qualify for Project SEARCH, a transition program that pairs special education students with potential employers.

Now in its third year, the internship program combines on-the-job training and life skills to enhance students’ opportunities for competitive employment after high school.

“We want to reach more students,” said Desiree Robles, who manages the employment program at Bishop Grady Villas in St. Cloud, which provides employment, training and residential programs for youth and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Project SEARCH was developed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 1996, and has since been adopted throughout the country.

In Osceola County, the program is a collaboration between the Osceola County School District, Florida Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and Bishop Grady and serves between 7 and 12 students per year.

Students get a curriculum built around employment skills as well as a series of three targeted internships coordinated with the host business. In Osceola, that’s Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center and AdventHealth.

Interns spend about five hours a day at the internship, including a 30-minute lunch break. Skills trainers, a special education teacher and department staff work together to support the interns and help them reach employment goals, Robles said.

“It helps them transition from the school environment into the community, so that by the time they graduate, they have a job or are close to having a job,” she added.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act allows special education students to attend high school until age 22, but that doesn’t necessarily prepare them for life after high school.

“They may or may not receive quality, hands-on experience in high school. But they often don’t know what their next step is going to be,” Robles said. So giving them this experience in the community is big.”

But although the program is free and has an 80 percent success rate, it can be a hard sell for the students and their families, she said.

That’s because they often think they will lose their Social Security income, “but the truth is, that’s determined on a case-by-case basis,” Robles said.

“They fear losing their financial benefit, but it’s possible that they can both keep the benefit and work,” she said. “We’re trying to eliminate the myth that they will automatically lose their benefits. We’re trying to spread the word so families in this situation can start preparing their loved ones without that fear.”

It’s a win for employers, too, said Robles.  

“Not only do they receive manpower while the interns are there, but they also have the option to hire someone who they’ve invested in training,” she said.