THUNDER BAY, ONT. — A project providing work experience for students with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities through hands-on learning is halfway through its first year and appears to be making a difference in the lives of students.
Project Search is a new initiative from a partnership between the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board, Community Living Thunder Bay and the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre.
Marcy Barry, an experiential learning consultant with the Catholic school board, says the program was initiated at the beginning of this school year to fill a gap that they identified. The three-way partnership involves placing final-year students from Catholic high schools into co-op positions at the regional hospital. Community Living Thunder Bay provides all the support services required to help the students, who are referred to as interns, with their learning and transition.
“It’s so important for students to be provided with the opportunity for authentic learning in a workplace environment,” Barry said. “Our co-op programs do that within the school. But this program really does provide those wraparound supports to ensure that students are gaining independence in the workplace.” She said they have a teacher, student support person, and two job coaches that support the seven interns who are in the program.
The support is well within reach of the interns as they continue to develop independence. She says they weren’t able to provide this within their normal classroom environment.
Project Search originated at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Barry described it as a full-day immersive co-op program that runs from September until June. She says they applied for the program through the Ministry of Education and were approved for this school year.
Sharon Strachan, the manager of supportive employment and community inclusion with Community Living Thunder Bay, says this is a great way for students to become familiar with what lies ahead when they’re finished high school or the college program.
“We provide support with on-the-job training, help with resume writing and interview preparation, teach them what to expect from an employer when they’re at work, and what the employer can expect from them,” she said.
Strachan pointed out that there are students in high school that struggle with disabilities, anxiety and depression. She described how Project Search proved beneficial to students with the story about a student who struggled with depression and anxiety and remained withdrawn. Within weeks of his placement at the hospital job, the student’s training team noticed how he talked more and became engaged in his tasks. His parents noticed he started coming out of his room to socialize.
“It’s such a positive thing, not only for jobs for these younger folks but an all-around experience in their life,” she said. “They’re out at the hospital everyday . . . it’s a totally new environment, they’re meeting new people, they’re working in and around the whole building and they are building confidence.”
Students are on a two-week rotation between various locations within the hospital, which include volunteer services, the medical device reprocessing department, nutrition and food services, materials management involving mail service and stores, human resources, housekeeping, laundry and portering.
Kelsee Fischer, a human resource consultant at the hospital, says the employees take pride in showing the students the required job skills while the student interns also benefit from the interaction.
“It definitely boosts the morale in the departments that the students are in,” she said. “I think it is great for the students too. Being a part of (the project evaluation) meetings, where the families were present in those meetings as well, I was honestly emotional at the pride and the happiness that the families felt.”
Fischer added that at least one of the seven students in the project has acquired the skills needed for an available employment position at the hospital.
“If he continues on the path that he is going, all he actually needs is to complete a course in order to receive that job offer,” Fischer said.
Sandi Krasowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle-Journal