‘Project Search’ Program Gives Special Education Students Skills to Enter Workforce

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DES MOINES, Iowa – Des Moines Public Schools is partnering with Mercy One to give students in the special education program an opportunity to gain skills and enter the workforce after graduation.

‘Project Search’ is a program that gives students an opportunity to intern in different career fields.

Project Search Working Coordinator Susan Hetherington-Ruggles said the process begins in the classroom.

“They learn about what their strengths and interests and skills are because a lot of times younger adults aren’t really sure what they are interested in and it is hard for them to identify their strengths. So, we spend a lot of time doing that,” Hetherington-Ruggles said.

Eighteen-year-old Secret Johnson has an intellectual disability and one day wants to become a nurse or doctor.

“My goal is to do what I really want to do and try and push myself as much as I can and work hard just to get there,” Johnson said.

The one-year program will take up to 12 recent graduates to teach them soft skills with a goal of preparing them for any career in the workforce.

Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor Travis Taylor said, “[It] is just getting them into different positions to figure out this may not be a great fit, so then we are not placing them into positions that they are going to struggle with.”

Taylor went through the program when he had a spinal injury ten years ago. He said it is easy to understand what students are going through because he went through the program.

“It’s a great opportunity just for them to build self-confidence, get the valuable work experience then not only to enter entry-level jobs [but] get a job that is going to be able to pay the pay the bills for them and have them be successful long term,” Taylor said.

At Mercy One, some internships the students participate in include working in the kitchen, mailroom, delivering supplies throughout the hospital, and working in patient rooms.

Johnson works with patients in the hospital.

“It feels like a dream. I always wanted to work in a hospital and get the whole experience,” Johnson said.

There are two working coaches that guide the students to become independent.

Project Search Working Coach Keifer Nevius said, “I can see their growth from the beginning of the year to the end of the year and that is the best part of the job for me.”

Click here for more information on ‘Project Search.’


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