Parents of teens and young adults with developmental disabilities in Marion County will have an opportunity to see their children find employment training and competitive jobs right here in their home county.
The Marion County Special Education Cooperative has signed on with an international program called Project Search, which brings developmental disability professionals and local business leaders together to open doors for competitive employment.
David Sheppard, director of MCSEC, and Laura Baldwin, student committee leader, said they were impressed with Project Search because of its proven success rate.
Baldwin said evidence-based models indicate the program has a 70 percent employment success rate, far exceeding the national average of 18 percent employment, and the state rate of 10 percent employment for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Sheppard and Baldwin are enthused about the potential for success in Marion County. They hope it will meet a need identified by family members for a long time.
“When I got here, we had some parents advocating to have their students about to finish their academic curriculum to have a way to learn employability skills and stay in this county,” said David Sheppard, now in his seventh year as director.
Sheppard said MCSEC has contracted in the past with places that assist high school transition students and adults with disabilities, but the places were out of county.
About the time Sheppard arrived, a grass-roots group called Parents Advocating for Individuals with Disabilities, met with school personnel and community leaders over the course of a year to find a better solution.
“It didn’t really produce anything beyond a lot of good conversation,” Sheppard said.
That began to change in September 2015, when Steve Reiner, special education teacher in Peabody, and Sheppard applied for a $20,000 Rural Routes Initiative Grant to develop a better approach.
“We were one of three places in Kansas that received this money,” Sheppard said.
The money was used in part to create an active employment council that included representatives from the local business field.
“We heard some business leaders in the community, mostly Hillsboro and Marion, were trying to find people throughout the county,” Sheppard said. “We invited them to participate as leaders.”
The group met over the course of the year to see what it could do for students who want to gain competitive employment skills.
Eventually, the group took interest in Project Search, which presented new challenges.
“There was the money piece,” Sheppard said. “Just a start-up fee with them is $16,000.”
With the help of Justin Wasmuth, who was on the Rural Routes committee and on the Northview Development Services Foundation in Newton, MCSEC received a philanthropic gift to cover the start-up fee.
“Laura and I put together a vision of what we could see for starting Project Search here,” Sheppard said. “They really reached out to us and basically gave us the money for start-up funds.”
MCSEC’s partnership with Project Search became official after talking to county superintendents and receiving the consent of the MCSEC board.
“We needed to go to our special ed board to get approval because it is an MCSEC program—although I say that with the caveat that really it is business-driven,” Baldwin said.
The primary goal of Project Search is competitive employment for young people with disabilities, according to Baldwin.
“Our model is going to be a little different than many models—we’re what they call a hybrid model,” she said. “That means we can not only take in students who have turned 18 and are ready to finish high school, but we can also take people who have recently graduated, or have been out of school for a few years but are young adults.”
Project Search emphasizes teaching transferable skills to students in a real-world business environment.
Students follow the (school) calendar year, but go through three internships at three different places and learn three skill sets over the course of a year.
“They may be in a food-service internship, for example,” Baldwin said. “Then maybe the second internship is something totally clerical, and the third internship could be something completely different.”
Baldwin said the host business may hire some of the interns, but that’s not their primary role.
“Their primary role is to host and to provide the opportunity for those skills to be taught in a business setting,” she said.
The host business is asked to provide a place to meet daily with the interns to teach the “soft skills” that most people have but can’t necessarily be assumed—such as dependability, building a resume, learning how to take constructive criticism and how to relating to a customer.
Meanwhile, MCSEC provides certified teachers and “job coaches” that work as liaisons with the host business.
“Certified teacher and job coaches are going back and fourth with the businesses, meeting with department heads and the interns to make sure they’re teaching what that student intern needs to learn to be successful in that job skill—and sometimes making accommodations,” Baldwin said.
In September, Project Search sent key personnel to meet with Marion County educators, business leaders and parents for a two-day training session led by Susie Rutkowski, an international Project Search trainer, and Cheryl Laaker, the state Project Search coordinator.
“Some of the business leaders who came have already agreed to be on the steering committee,” Baldwin said, adding that one business is seriously considering becoming a host site and a second business has expressed interest.
More than job training
Baldwin sees Project Search as much more than a job-skill training program.
“I was lucky to be able to attend the national conference,” she said. “I learned so much about the life-changing business of Project Search.
“I would say this is God’s business because it is so life-changing and culture changing—not just for the intern and the intern’s family, but for the business,” she added.
Baldwin credited the persistence of parents for forging a new path for their children.
“A lot of this came from parents who said we are tired of our young people being bused out of our county, and we are concerned about their future in Marion County being employable,” she said.
“People were saying, you’re not going to keep us here. We’re going to lose some of our really great people because they have a responsibility to their young people to do what’s best for them. If we’re not providing that here, they were going to leave.”
Baldwin looks to the Project Search future with enthusiasm.
“I think the heart in our county is absolutely ready for this,”she said. “It’s just that there wasn’t the structure or the opportunity.
“Now we will have the structure and the opportunity to be able to have these conversations and open some of these doors for some of these people with intellectual disabilities to have competitive employment.
“Competitive employment means they work more than 16 hours a week, are paid a competitive wage—not less than anybody else—and they perform a real job.”
The first interns will be selected in April, and the program will begin next fall.