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Helping Challenged Teens Build Job Skills

Project SEARCH logo

March 2017

St. Ambrose is inviting a group of high school interns to become immersed in the university's work culture and build competitive job skills.

Beginning this fall, St. Ambrose University will serve as a Project SEARCH host site. Project SEARCH is a national program established 21 years ago to help students, ages 18-21, who have intellectual or developmental disabilities gain competitive employment skills.

The Davenport School District, Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency and Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services are partnering to place up to eight students, who will work as unpaid interns within university departments.

At a recent meeting where the program was introduced to SAU faculty and staff, Davenport School representatives said they want the students fully immersed in the SAU culture. Departments are encouraged to invite the students to join them for lunch, participate in meetings, and be held to the same standards as other employees.

Ryan Saddler, director of Diversity and Student Disability Services, said he is hoping more than 10 university departments will volunteer to serve as intern placement sites.

Alyse Schmidt, SAU's student disability services provider, said several departments and campus offices have expressed interest including the library, Campus Recreation, the Children's Campus, Communication, Education Strategic Planning and Sodexo. Schmidt is hoping more will step forward, too. "We want to make sure we have a wide variety of departments so we can match their specific needs with the students."

During a two-day training, Schmidt said she saw how willing and ready Project SEARCH students were to work, how seriously they took the internships and how meaningful the work was for each of them. Their pride was apparent. "For the students, it was like ‘Hey, I can have a job. I can contribute and have purpose and meaning," she said.

"This program is mutually beneficial, which is why I am so excited about it," Schmidt said. "The students really get a lot out of it, and for the university, it is a way to help departments finish some of those tasks that may be lingering."

The high school students will serve three, 10-week internship rotations and work five hours a day Monday - Friday. The Davenport School District is providing a certified teacher and Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services is providing a skills trainer, both who will work on-site with the students. They will ensure the students have or are learning the skills needed to be successful in each placement and coordinate any accommodations that may be needed.

SAU is donating classroom space, and every day the students will spend an hour in the classroom with the teacher and skills trainer. From 9 a.m. - 2 p.m., students will work as interns, and from 2 - 2:30 p.m. they will return to the classroom to review, plan and journal about their experience.

Nationally, the program has been very successful. According to the Mississippi Bend AEA, 75 percent of Project SEARCH students find competitive employment after graduation. In contrast, 68 percent of individual with intellectual and developmental disabilities are unemployed.

"This program fits within our core mission of enriching lives and working with diverse populations," Schmidt said. "The St. Ambrose community does a lot of service learning and we incorporate it into our classes. This program is a way to incorporate it into our workplace as well."

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