Project SEARCH making a difference

APPLETON – Life after high school can be intimidating, especially for a young adult with a disability. But one hospital is working to help make a difference with the transition.

Heber Herrara is a senior at Appleton East High School and a Project SEARCH intern.

“It’s been hard work, busy, busy, but so fantastic,” said Herrara.

Herrara will soon graduate and hopes that one day he can find a job in the culinary world. He’s getting one step closer, thanks to a hands-on program being offered for the first time at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton. It’s called Project SEARCH.

“Project SEARCH is a program for students with disabilities in their last year of high school. It’s a business-led one-year program and we teach employability skills,” said Project SEARCH instructor Jean Haznar.

The program serves students who have intellectual and developmental disabilities including autism, learning and cognitive disabilities.

“Over the past year I’ve seen some amazing growth in our interns. They’ve gained independence, and confidence, maturity and they’re gaining so many job skills,” said Haznar.

There are seven interns at the hospital from high schools in the Fox Valley. Each intern is chosen specifically by staff members for what department they’ll work in.

“Each intern has to write a resume, they have to interview for their internship positions and they have to write a letter of resignation at the end,” said Haznar.

Some interns work in food services, others work in patient access. There are some that are even receptionists,

Tala Abouzelam is also taking part in the internship.

“Sometimes I they have me stock supplies and I have to organize,” said Abouzelam.

She works in the foundation office, volunteer services and in the gift shop.

“In the future I’m hoping to find a job in an office setting,” said Abouzelam.

“It’s really been fun to just watch these kids over the course of a year just flourish and really grow into young adults and prepare for employment,” said Travis Andersen, St. Elizabeth Hospital president.

Andersen believes these interns are setting an example for others.

“From their parents, almost tearful really in terms of what I’m hearing from them…in their growth in their development, in their confidence levels and how they act at home,” said Andersen.

“It helped me gain more confidence in myself and the work I do. It’s a learning and growth experience also,” said Herrara

“In the next 10 years we hope to have 70 or 80 kids employed in our community, working and making a difference in the place that we live and work,” said Andersen.

Governor Scott Walker recently signed a bill adding 20 additional sites in the state of Wisconsin that would offer Project SEARCH.

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