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Eight local Project SEARCH students graduate, celebrate skills

Moline Dispatch and Rock Island Argus - 5/25/2024

May 25—Eight local students graduated Project SEARCH, a work immersion program for students with disabilities, on Thursday at UnityPoint Health — Bettendorf.

Despite the ceremonial rite of passage, many of these graduates have secured jobs already.

"I'm working at Rhythm City Casino. I'm a custodian there," said graduate Luke Menster, of Bettendorf High School. "I love it there, it's so peaceful and quiet."

Project SEARCH helps students with disabilities — from Bettendorf, Pleasant Valley and North Scott High Schools — develop transferable job skills via both classroom instruction and workplace exposure, in collaboration with UnityPoint, Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services, Michelle's Vocational Placement and the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency. To participate, students elect to stay on their Individualized Education Plans for a fifth year.

Students in Project SEARCH complete three internships at UnityPoint over nine months, gaining hands-on experience in areas such as:

— Food Service

— Environmental Services

— Central Supply

— Patient Access, Transport and Communication

— Radiology

— Information Technology

— Housekeeping

"They are very, very visible to their co-workers here in the hospital," said Stacie Kintigh, Project SEARCH coordinator. "It is vital that we give this opportunity to young adults with intellectual disabilities and other challenges. Without this program, I don't know how successful we (at UnityPoint) would all be."

Other than UnityPoint, she said Project SEARCH also works with Kwik Star and Hy-Vee to employ its graduates.

"We've had a great deal of support from those employers," Kintigh said. "We are a pipeline for logistics here in the Quad Cities, those jobs are always, always available here. So we try to train (interns) in those tangible skills so they can take those straight into places like Katun or Amazon, where we do have former interns working full-time."

This year, Project SEARCH expanded to include an IT internship at UnityPoint. Ethan Ramsdell, of PV, was one of these interns.

"It was fun," he said, adding that learning "flexible" skills was his biggest takeaway.

Ramsdell also has a job at the Scott County Pool already — though he's not sure what he'll be doing yet. Regardless, he's excited to get started and make some money.

Menster received his first paycheck from Rhythm City on Friday.

"It's bittersweet," he said of graduation. "When I first started (Project SEARCH), I didn't talk to anyone."

Now, Menster has confidence.

"I'm a really dedicated worker," he said, adding he'd recommend Project SEARCH to a friend. "You can learn new skills ... and I loved it."

Launching in 2016, Project SEARCH has graduated more than 50 local students. Approximately 84% of these graduates are now working in the community — compared to 22.5% of persons with disabilities nationwide.

"We become very close with our interns and their families," Kintigh said. "As much as we all look forward to graduation, (it) also pulls on your heartstrings, because we put so much work into (students') success."

Kate Ramsdell, Ethan's mom, had similar emotions Thursday.

"When you find out you have a child with special needs, you never know what that future looks like," she said. "To know there are wonderful programs like (Project SEARCH) that see the potential in our kids and what they can do, not what they can't do ... is really just life-changing."

Thanks to Project SEARCH, Ramsdell said her son's confidence and independence has grown.

"Even at home, his ability to (manage) time, get up by himself and be ready to go to work — all those things you need to learn before (having) a job, he's been able to put into practice," she said. "His ability to interact with co-workers and others at the professional level (has) been so wonderful to see him grow like that."

Since his speech is limited, Ethan has used an augmentative and alternative communication device to communicate since preschool.

"We're very excited for him and to see what happens next," Ramsdell said with a twinkle in her eye.

Erick Recinos, diversity, equity and inclusion program manager at UnityPoint, led Thursday's invocation, followed by the ceremonial guest speaker, Bettendorf Mayor Bob Gallagher. He spoke about the value of hard work and how to define success.

To learn more about Project SEARCH, visit www.projectsearch.us.

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