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Project SEARCH turns 10

Chad Frey
cfrey@thekansan.com
Project SEARCH, an internship program for students with special needs operated in partnership with Newton Med and Newton USD 373, is turning 10 this year.

Project SEARCH — a program for students with special needs to get real job experience while still in high school — is turning a decade old in Newton.

“Six of the 10 years so far has had 100% of the interns gain employment within one year of leaving the program,” said Jeremy Gooch, director of the program for USD 373. “The rest have been above 75% employment. All the years together, our interns have kept being employed at a 73% success rate.”

For a dose of perspective, the state average for individuals with disabilities gaining employment right out of high school is about 17%.

According to projectsearch.us, the goal for each program participant is competitive employment. To reach that goal, the program provides real-life work experience combined with training in employability and independent-living skills to help young people with significant disabilities make successful transitions to productive adult life.

Project SEARCH serves young people with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities. Typically, these are high school students who are on an Individual Education Program (IEP) and in their last year of high school eligibility.

For the first nine years of the program, SEARCH students were given an internship at Newton Medical Center.

“We make sure that they are doing something that they enjoy doing,” said Laurie Janzing, director of materials management, in a video at the end of last school year.

That can mean some time-consuming jobs in the hospital — a linens collection route or trash route — that can take an hour and half.

“When we have a semester when we don’t have an intern, or a summer break, it is hard,” Janzing said. “... (SEARCH) is the most rewarding thing I do at work. At first we thought it would be a burden, but it is more a gift to us. Not only do they lighten our burden, they teach us. They teach us how to more caring and understanding of people.”

This year has been a bit different — COVID-19 has led to interns not being able to be in the hospital nearly as much.

While the location of class — on the campus of Newton Med — have not changed, internships are being served within the school district.

Gooch said, however, that the skills being taught in Project SEARCH are more important than ever.

“COVID has actually made a lot of our intern's skill sets much more important. Cleaning means a lot more now than it did before COVID,” Gooch said.

The program is funded by the school district through the Harvey County Special Education Cooperative.

In six of the 10 years  project SEARCH has operated as a joint venture of Newon Med and Newton USD 373, 100% of program interns gain employment within one year of leaving the program.