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November 8th, 2016

Project SEARCH Connects Young Adults With Disabilities to Job Opportunities

By In the Loop

Through Project SEARCH, young people with disabilities are gaining job skills and employment opportunities at places like Mayo Clinic and Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire. But they’re not the only ones to benefit from the program.

Like many people who work in health care, Meredith Kieffer's favorite part of the job is getting "to spend time with patients," she recently told the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. According to the paper, working in a hospital was a lifelong goal for Meredith, a 19-year-old with a bright and ready smile. It's a goal she was able to achieve this past September, thanks to a new program at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. That program, called Project SEARCH, helps young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities gain the skills needed to enter the workforce. Developed at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in 1996, the program has grown to include 300 sites worldwide.

Meredith, who has Down syndrome, is part of Eau Claire's inaugural class of 11 interns. Each will complete three 10-week internships, working with staff mentors and rotating through departments including Security, Volunteer Services, and General Surgery, Plastic Surgery and Urology. Interns also spend about an hour a day with job coaches from the community, who offer instruction on communication, team building and workplace safety. Jennifer Steffes, a human resources specialist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, tells the paper the interns are "learning the technical skills of employment" through the program. "This is a teaching hospital, so it's a perfect fit," she says.

But the interns aren't the only ones learning. Project SEARCH also provides an education to the staff involved, says Guy Finne, a human resources manager who serves on the program's leadership team on Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus, which recently welcomed its second cohort of interns. "This program, in a very non-threatening way, deals with our unconscious bias toward people with disabilities," Finne says. "We carry imaginary barriers in our heads of what people with disabilities can do or cannot do," he tells us, adding that the program provides an opportunity to "put individuals who have previously faced false barriers into positions of success."

And it's doing just that. All five of the first group of interns on Mayo's Rochester campus accepted job offers at the end of the program — four of them at Mayo Clinic. "The first year of Project SEARCH was an overwhelming success," says Dawn Kirchner, a diversity recruitment specialist and member of the Project SEARCH leadership team. So much so that in year two, the program in Rochester has grown to include eight interns.

That's good news to Steffes, who is happy to see the program grow not just as an employee, but also as a parent. Her 11-year-old son has Down syndrome, and she says Project SEARCH "offers hope" to her and other parents "that someday our children will be gainfully employed with dignity."

You can learn more about Project SEARCH by watching this inspiring video (or this shorter version), both of which include comments from the interns, their parents, and program champions. (We're pretty sure you'll be one, too, after you watch.) You can also see what the interns in Eau Claire are up to by liking and following their Facebook page.

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Tags: Community, Dawn Kirchner, Employee Stories, Guy Finne, Jennifer Steffes, Mayo Clinic Health System, Project SEARCH

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