The first Project SEARCH program in Polk County has seen success in meeting its goals for acquiring employment opportunities for its participants. Prior to graduation in May, 75% of participants have already been hired by Lakeland Regional Health and other organizations such as FitLife Foods, Cracker Barrel, and Cardinal Health. Once hired, students continue their training through their jobs and receive a year of job coaching and support from Center for Independent Living and Vocational Rehabilitation trainers while working and earning income. Additionally, any students not hired by graduation will receive additional training and services aimed at earning them paid employment.
Starting in August, Lakeland Regional Health partnered with the Polk County Public Schools, Center for Independent Living in Central Florida, Inc., Florida Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, and the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council to pilot the Project SEARCH internship program for students with disabilities ages 18-22 years old.
According to Cornell University’s 2015 Disability Statistics, people with disabilities are employed less than half as often as their counterparts without disabilities. Project SEARCH’s is aimed at closing the gap in education and employment to provide similar opportunities to persons with disabilities. This collaborative effort between Lakeland Regional Health, Polk County Public Schools, the Center for Independent Living in Central Florida, Inc, Vocational Rehabilitation, and the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council provides an evidence-based program for transitioning students with disabilities from school to work. This partnership with Lakeland Regional Health and Project SEARCH shapes a brighter future for participants with disabilities, while inspiring other businesses to get involved in this successful model.
Upon launching Project SEARCH, six Lakeland Regional Health departments participated in the program. By the end of the first class, the number of participating departments will have doubled. Participants in Project SEARCH gain valuable skills aimed at entry level positions with supports and accommodations provided as needed. Center for Independent Living in Central Florida and Polk County Public Schools instruct interns that participate in three, ten week rotations in order to acquire marketable and transferable skills for obtaining competitive employment. Through these targeted internships, students gained skills that enabled them to acquire positions at the hospital and in the community.
Project SEARCH partners always include an educational institution, Vocational Rehabilitation, a supported employment agency, a developmental disability group, the student’s family, other advocacy organizations, and a host business. The Project SEARCH program follows the school year and includes between 10 to 12 students with a variety of intellectual and developmental disabilities.
To be eligible to participate, students must have graduated high school or must choose to defer graduation in a desire to become employed. Eligible students are referred to the program by their school or Vocational Counselor and need to apply by spring of the prior year for entry into the program. All applicants will participate in a selection process conducted by a team of representatives from all Project SEARCH partners.