Project SEARCH: Empowering Students with Disabilities

andreaFor individuals who have a physical or intellectual disablity, living independently and finding employment can be challenging. One program that has come to Missouri assists these individuals in learning life and job skills to ensure their success.

Project SEARCH was created in Cincinnati, Ohio, at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and has locations throughout the country, including six in Missouri. The program began in 2010 at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Peters and has seen 20 students successfully graduate and achieve gainful employment.

Young adults who have significant disabilities are provided a combination of real-life work experience and training in employability and independent living skills to make successful transitions from school to productive adult life.

“We teach the students the basic skills you need to be successful, such as email etiquette, job interviews, appropriate dress for work, following a schedule and social skills, so they are prepared for employment,” says Deanna Heuring, who has been a Project SEARCH instructor for two school years. “Things that you or I might not think of—such as knowing that the candy in the break room might be for a fundraiser, so make sure to ask or pay before you take it— these are the skills these young people are being taught.”

The Project SEARCH model involves an extensive period of training, career exploration, innovative adaptations, long-term job coaching, and continuous feedback from teachers, job coaches, and employers.

“I’ve learned how to not be nervous and keep working when things get difficult,” says current student Andrew Clark. “I hope I learn how to be successful and get a nice job.”

Many students are given rotations in the hospitality department at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Students are given a chance to learn skills ranging from changing beds to cooking and helping in the cafeteria.

As a result, at the completion of the training program, students with developmental disabilities are employed in nontraditional, complex, and rewarding jobs.

A new school
Kelly McFadden, a graduate of Project SEARCH is currently on the job hunt. “My favorite thing about Project SEARCH was working in therapy services. At Project SEARCH, I learned interview skills, how to dress for an interview, and how to be a good co-worker.”

The program follows the Orchard Farm School District calendar and runs the full school year—approximately 180 days. Classrooms are provided at a business or hospital that can accommodate up to 12 students and staff for the course of the program. The site is staffed by a special education teacher and one to three job coaches to meet the educational and training needs of the students.

Each student goes through a 90-day coaching program, which includes three weeks with a teacher and job development coaching with a vocational rehabilitation counselor. Emphasis is placed on refining skills, achieving career goals, and carrying out individualized job placement during a student’s final months in the program.

The vocational rehabilitation counselor becomes an even more important part of the team as the job search process begins. Job development and placement occurs based on a student’s experiences, strengths, and skills.

Upon completion of the program, students receive a career portfolio.

The suite approach
One company that has embraced the Project SEARCH program in the St. Louis area, as well as in neighboring states, is John Q. Hammons Properties. Embassy Suites in St. Charles, which is owned by the company, hired two graduates of the program.

“This is an opportunity we don’t want to miss out on,” general manager Tim Lewin says. “Regardless of abilities, we want to give students a key part of growing up, and part of that is having a job and getting work experience.

“They are our ambassadors when they are on the job. They greet each guest that comes for breakfast and welcomes them for the day.”

Lewin has nothing but positive things to say about the program and is exploring the idea of making the St. Charles Embassy Suites a training site for more students. “There’s a great benefit to finding quality staff members in the community and giving them a chance to be employed,” he says.

For more information about Project SEARCH, email

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