Didlake partners with local schools and businesses to offer student internships through Project SEARCH, an international program that prepares young people with disabilities for success in competitive integrated employment. The program incorporates skills training, job coaching, career exploration and real-life work experience for students aged 18 to 21.
“Project SEARCH is a 10-month internship program for students with disabilities in their last year of high school. The program helps them build work skills and transition when they graduate. Our Project SEARCH partnership continues to grow. Our fourth site went live this month,” said Stacy Chapman, Program Manager, Didlake. (Watch Didlake news for details on the new site in the fall.)
Each Project SEARCH site has four partners: a public school system, vocational rehabilitation, a host center and an employment services organization like Didlake. Interns attend classes each morning to learn work and independent living skills, then spend the rest of the day applying those skills while working at the host site. Students complete three worksite rotations throughout the school year.
18 Students Graduate from 2020-2021 Program; New Partners Make a Big Impact
Didlake, which has participated in Project SEARCH as an employment services organization since 2011, joined its program partners in June to honor 18 graduates of the 2020-2021 program. When the school year began last fall, in some cases, students could not return to the typical program sites for some or all year.
“Because of the COVID restrictions, our search team got really creative and found new partners to get through the pandemic,” Chapman said.
Prince William County Students Intern at Community Partners, Conclude Year at Hospital
Six students from Prince William County Schools (PWCS) completed their first two rotations at community partners and concluded the year at their home site, Novant Health UVA Health System Prince William Medical Center, Manassas, VA – Didlake’s first Project SEARCH site.
The first rotation was hosted by Prince William Food Rescue (PWFR), formerly a program of ACTS Prince William (ACTION in Community Through Service) and now a program of Northern Virginia Food Rescue (NOVA-FR) that aims to reduce food insecurity and food waste. PWFR leverages a cell phone app to mobilize volunteers who rescue food about to go to waste and redistribute it to organizations that serve communities in need. At the time of the internship, PWFR also supported the Community Feeding Taskforce, repackaging excess food purchased from farmers and other bulk food items into smaller boxes for distribution at local food pantries. Interns filled boxes with non-perishable food, recycled cardboard and assisted on the assembly line.
“They were always so happy and excited. They worked hard and did a great job, interacted well with everyone, and there was really positive energy whenever they were in the warehouse,” said Aaron Tolson, CEO, NOVA-FR. “If other organizations have the opportunity to host a group, Project SEARCH is definitely a good one to snag.”
Harrison Scott, a frequent PWFR volunteer, agreed. Elder Scott worked alongside the interns almost daily. “They were very helpful and ready to work. It was a great experience for me to connect through service with members of the community. When you are serving, you are working together to meet a common goal. It is a good opportunity to strengthen knowledge and build relationships,” he said.
The PWCS interns completed their second rotation at Tru by Hilton of Manassas, a hotel near historic Manassas, performing housekeeping duties such as vacuuming, cleaning rooms and folding linens.
“PWFR and Tru Hotel wanted to give back to the community. They were so wonderful, supportive and welcoming. After the challenges of last year, it made us all feel like it’s going to be okay,” said Laurie Qualey, MSW, Employment Specialist III, Didlake.
The interns returned to the home site – the hospital – for the third rotation. Department hosts this year included Environmental Services, Patient Transport, Materials Management, Supply Chain Management, Linens and Food Services. Ten graduates of prior Project SEARCH classes currently work at the hospital and, in some cases, served as mentors to this year’s interns.
“They’ve been a wonderful partner. After having us for so many years, when we weren’t there, we heard that it felt like something was missing. The hospital staff missed the interns and us. It shows how ingrained Project SEARCH is in the hospital culture. It enriches not only our students but also the hospital employees,” Chapman said.
All six of the PWCS graduates are now competitively employed. One intern works at the Montessori of Gainesville – Casa dei Bambini, assisting the teacher and preparing lunches and snacks. The Manassas locations of Marshalls, Giant (Dumfries Road) and Lowe’s each hired an intern. Another intern is an usher at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas. The sixth intern is working as a surgical supplies specialist for Anicira, a veterinary practice in Manassas. He sanitizes tools, washes and folds laundry and makes e-collars for pets.
Lansdowne Resort and Spa Becomes New Program Site for Loudoun County Students
Students from Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) interned primarily at Lansdowne Resort and Spa, which took over as the home Project SEARCH site last school year.
“It’s wonderful to see our community come together. Hospitality took a huge hit, and the National Conference Center couldn’t sustain the program with everything that happened last year. For Lansdowne to come out with open arms and embrace this program that they didn’t know too much about is amazing. I think it really speaks to the program and the interns,” said Kylie Hall, Employment Specialist III.
Internship rotations at Lansdowne included Receiving, Piedmont’s Kitchen, Laundry, Spa and Housekeeping. Didlake also sought partners in the community to maximize employment experiences and match specific interests.
Community partners included SimplyBe Coffee Shop, Big Lots in Leesburg, Woodhouse Day Spa and Cascades Pet Depot. Some students did rotations as baristas and cashiers at SimplyBe, while others performed various jobs at Pet Depot and Big Lots. One intern performed laundry services at Woodhouse Day Spa.
Big Lots hired two of the eight interns after graduation.
“Big Lots has been a tremendous resource for our participants – giving students the opportunity to broaden their horizons and become paid employees. They see the potential in each individual and the value in hiring our participants. The expectation was for a work experience to build skills, but they actively sought to hire these students,” Hall said.
Lansdowne also hired two graduates – one is working in the coffee shop, and the other is prepping food as a chef assistant. Hooters in Manassas and Famous Toastery in Leesburg also each hired a graduate. One graduate is continuing work readiness and daily living skills training through the public schools. Didlake is continuing to work with another graduate to secure employment.
“The interns are the spark of life. They are what makes this program so special, and they continue to prove how awesome and amazing it is. Working with all the different departments at Lansdowne and community partners – to see how excited and welcoming they were and this family that has been built around these interns, I feel blessed to be a part of it,” Hall said.
Students Return to Maryview Medical Center
At the Bon Secours Maryview Medical Center in Hampton Roads, Va., four students from the Southeastern Cooperative Educational Program (SECEP) completed three internship rotations throughout the year. In the warehouse, students unpacked supplies and stocked shelves. They cleaned tables and swept floors in the cafeteria, and performed administrative duties for Occupational Health. In the kitchen, students filled ice waters and juices for patients.
“It was amazing to be in person during COVID. We didn’t have outbreaks. We made sure we took every precaution we could. We have an excellent partnership with the hospital. We also have a small number of students, so that allows us to be in a classroom that was not over the limit of people allowed,” said Jessica Klein, Program Manager, Didlake.
Maryview has hosted the Project SEARCH site since 2015 in partnership with Didlake, SECEP and the Virginia Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services in Norfolk and Portsmouth. Virginia Commonwealth University helped launch the site for students with autism. The program continues to primarily serve students with autism but has expanded to include other disabilities. Over the years, Maryview has hired more than 10 Project SEARCH interns in permanent positions following graduation. Nine former graduates continue to work in the hospital in Sterile Processing, IT and Environmental Services.
This year, Applebees of Hampton Roads, Va., hired two graduates of this year’s program and two additional graduates from prior years. These individuals are now assisting chefs by weighing, measuring and prepping food.
Celebrating the Graduates
In June, each Project SEARCH site hosted a small in-person graduation ceremony for students and their families, with others joining online via Zoom.
“We had to overcome a lot of challenges, but somehow everything turned out great. By volunteering with a lot of different groups, we got to spread the word about Project SEARCH. Working side by side with our interns, a lot of people in our community got to see the abilities of what our people can do,” Qualey said.
Project SEARCH originated in 1996 at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, a research environment that fosters visionary thinking and innovation. The program is the brainchild of Erin Riehle, Director of Cincinnati Children’s Emergency Department, and Susie Rutkowski, Special Education Director at Great Oaks Career Campuses. Riehle felt that because the hospital served individuals with developmental disabilities, it should hire individuals in this group. She reached out to Rutkowski and, together, they launched the first Project SEARCH site at the hospital. The program has since grown to a large, continuously expanding international network of sites.
“With Project SEARCH, everyone comes together for the common good. All of these different agencies are working together toward the goal for our students – the interns – to find competitive employment and show people what they can do, letting their abilities shine,” Qualey said. “Project SEARCH gives people the opportunity to achieve that – to identify their interests and career goals and pursue them, gives them soft skills and technical skills that they need to be successful. That’s what we all want – the opportunity to go out and do our best.”