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BRITTANY JOHNSON, an intern in the Project Search program, works the salad bar at the University of Findlay’s Henderson Dining Hall. Project Search participants spend an hour in the classroom and the rest of the day working in food service, housekeeping or the mail room at the university, providing experience which will hopefully lead to employment for developmentally disabled adults. (Photo by SARA ARTHURS / The Courier)

By SARA ARTHURS
STAFF WRITER

Embarking upon adulthood is exciting but also challenging for anyone, but especially for young adults with developmental disabilities. While most adults will transition into the workforce after school, that is not always the case for the disabled. However, help is available for these individuals.

Project Search, now in its second year, allows young adults between ages 18 and 22 with developmental disabilities to get work experience that, it’s hoped, will help when they apply for other jobs. It’s a partnership between Blanchard Valley Center, Blanchard Valley Industries, Findlay City Schools, Hancock County Educational Services Center, Millstream Career Center, Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities (formerly Rehabilitation Services Commission of Ohio), Sodexo and the University of Findlay.

Nicole Beck, a job coach with Project Search, said in addition to gaining practical job skills she has seen Project Search help these young adults gain confidence and self-esteem.

“Their self-esteem goes through the roof whenever they accomplish new things,” she said.

Connie Ament, Blanchard Valley Center superintendent, said the Ohio Department of Education is emphasizing “transitional experiences” for teens and young adults with developmental disabilities. Many of these teens don’t have the same experiences others their age might such as having sold cookies or babysat, she said.

“Most of them have never had a job,” Beck said.

Participants in Project Search spend 12 weeks each on three different rotations at the University of Findlay: food service in the Henderson Dining Hall, housekeeping at the library and the university’s mail room. They also spend one hour of class time learning life skills such as budgeting and job interview skills, then the rest of the day at their work site.

Joyce Motter said her son, Jared, who is interning in the food service rotation, has wanted to do more around the house when it comes to preparing food as well.

“I think the program’s really helped him,” she said.

Project Search has five interns this year, but Beck hopes it will expand. She said her interns are dependable and “they want to go to work.” They also are “just so supportive of each other,” she said.

Interns are allowed to choose what they’re most interested in. On the food service rotation, one intern might want to try being a line cook while another might be interested in the salad bar.

Beck comes up with ways to help them understand their job. For example, Jared Motter does not speak and may need help communicating numbers, so, to remind him that he is supposed to stack the cups seven high, he has seven small circles on which to place them.

While Beck assists the interns in learning their jobs, they do the work themselves.

“The overall goal is to become independent,” Beck said.

Some interns are already thinking about where they might like to work after graduation. Brittany Johnson, an intern helping with the salad bar, likes working with food but especially likes the people she works with.

Beck thinks she would be a natural in a job like a store greeter.

“She’s always happy and upbeat,” Beck said.

Rae King, another intern, works on the grill helping prepare hamburgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese and french fries. She, too, especially likes meeting people. She already knew how to cook but said she is learning some new skills. She recently applied for another job and is waiting to hear back.

Joyce Motter said Jared has been “a lot happier” since starting his internship. He’s more willing to try new things, too. She said her hope is that, after Project Search, he finds work, as she wants him to keep busy.

Maria Gasbarro, a line cook with Sodexo, found supervising a Project Search intern “very rewarding.”

She saw Jared’s confidence increase from where at first he wouldn’t converse beyond saying “Uh-huh” to, later, communicating more. Gasbarro found out he liked sports and she would ask about games.

At first, she had to give him more detailed directions but, over time, she could just tell him she needed, say, 12 onions and 12 peppers chopped and he would get them ready.

The mail room job in Project Search teaches a variety of skills, said Nichole Callicutt, intervention specialist with Hancock County Educational Services Center. Each student and faculty member has a mailbox and the interns must interpret different ways of writing addresses, as well as different handwriting so “it can get difficult,” Callicutt said. The interns must look up information if the name and mailbox number don’t match, and must handle packages that can’t fit in the mailboxes.

Callicutt said there is a customer service aspect, interacting with students who are picking up packages.

Interns who are comfortable doing so can also sell stamps.

The housekeeping rotation involves cleaning the bathrooms in the university’s library along with dusting, mopping and other cleaning tasks. They coordinate with the University of Findlay’s housekeeping staff.

Callicutt said University of Findlay faculty and staff go “above and beyond” in their willingness to work with Project Search interns. Students too are very accepting, and being on a university campus allows interns to interact with young adults their own age, which Callicutt said helps their self-confidence.

“This campus is amazing,” she said.

Project Search stresses that interns are meant to seek work after graduation.

“It’s definitely our expectation” that at the end of their time in Project Search they find a job in the community, Callicutt said.

Most go on to entry-level jobs such as washing dishes, hospitality at hotels or work crews at Lowe’s Distribution Center. Staff help them fill out job applications and prepare for interviews. Blanchard Valley sends job coaches with the new employees who help them understand what is required at the job.

Employers are encouraged to call the job coaches if they have questions or problems.

Employment offers these young adults the chance to make a contribution to the community, Callicutt said.
“To me it’s the doorway to adulthood,” Ament said, noting that employees take pride in their job and are able to build skills through work. But she said it also ensures these young adults aren’t isolated.

There is still “a stigma” and some employers may feel someone with a developmental disability can’t do a job, Beck said. However, this is changing. Ament said local employers are increasingly willing to hire Blanchard Valley graduates. Motter said perceptions have changed since Jared, 21, was born.

Most young adults with developmental disabilities live with their parents, but if they need help with housing or if they don’t have family and need help with managing their money Blanchard Valley Center can connect them with social workers and case managers.

Parents of young adults with developmental disabilities are “more protective” than other parents but they do need to allow their children some independence, Callicutt said. Ament said this can be a balancing act.

Lisa Baer, a special education teacher at Findlay High School, intends to start a new support group for developmentally disabled older teens and young adults and their families.

Baer said employment is “very feasible” and young adults who don’t have paid jobs may choose to volunteer as it does help them gain self-esteem and new skills. She said socializing is also important.

Baer conceives of the group as a chance for families to get together every other month for support, perhaps helping each other with what’s needed, such as one family offering a ride to another that lacks transportation.

Anyone interested in getting involved with the group can contact Baer at jnlbaer@yahoo.com.

Arthurs: 419-427-8494
saraarthurs@thecourier.com

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