By: Erin Sofianek
“Project SEARCH gives us an opportunity to have confidence and self esteem and it lets people see that even though we have disabilities, we are very capable and even though it might take us a little longer we are still capable and we can do it too,” says Mikaela Caracciolo.
Caracciolo is one of six interns including Emily Ruff, Molly Wyatt, Charity Mortenson, Lucile Brunswick, and Alison Bowers who are part of a program called “Project SEARCH,” new to Montana this year.
Project SEARCH is a year long internship program for young adults with developmental disabilities to learn job skills and explore careers. The goal of the program is for them to get competitive jobs. Interns are immersed in a host business where they go through three different department rotations over a course of 10 months.
Christy Sofianek (Full disclosure: Sofianek is the reporter’s mother) initiated a Project SEARCH site in Bozeman at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year in order to, “Give individuals with developmental disabilities access to jobs in which they can utilize their skills.”
Sofianek is the program coordinator. Project SEARCH has partnered with Bozeman Deaconess Health Services as their host business, as well as The Taishoff Center for Inclusive Higher Education, D.R.E.A.M., Reach Inc, Montana Vocational Rehabilitation, Montana Disabilities Program, and Helena Industries Case Management.
There are over 300 program sites nationwide; but the one in Bozeman is the first to reach Montana. The interns at Project SEARCH are just over one month away from graduating and Sofianek says that they have grown by leaps and bounds in their ability to become a valuable part of any workforce.
“Project SEARCH gives motivated individuals with disabilities access to unique, hands-on learning opportunities. Many very capable individuals are not given the opportunities to develop the skills needed to get a competitve job,” Sofianek explains.
The interns who were working before joining Project SEARCH were working in fairly limited positions with few hours.
Before Project SEARCH, Wyatt said that she was just “sitting at home doing nothing.”
Caracciolo and Bowers were both working at TJ Maxx prior to beginning Project SEARCH this year; however, neither worked more than a few hours a week.
Ruff explains that she was volunteering at Head Start for several years as well as working with the Reach work center, which, while great, she says it did not allow her the same level of independence that Project SEARCH does.
Bowers is currently working part time at Gallatin Valley Cinemas.
Sofianek says the program helps them gain skills, understand their own abilities and realize the extent of what they are really capable of doing. She adds that the types of jobs the individuals can flourish in are often not accessible because they simply don’t have that kind of training.
Caracciolo says that the routine of Project SEARCH has helped her immensely.
“It’s good for me, and it helps my self esteem,” she says. “It has opened a lot of doors.”
Each intern is set up with a mentor within their department, who assists them as they learn their tasks and become more independent, Sofianek explains.
The interns have learned a variety of employability skills over the course of this year, including time management, professionalism, the ability to complete tasks, as well as technology competency.
“The growth has been really remarkable. The first thing you see is the growth in their confidence and then the development of professional skills,” Sofianek says, looking proud of her interns accomplishments and uncovered abilities.
They have learned everything from clerical work to sterile processing to complex scannings in The Lab.
This sort of opportunity doesn’t often come to students with disabilities graduating high school, or in their young adult lives. Project SEARCH can prepare them to become independent and contributing members of the work force.
Brunswick was recently hired by Sola Cafe as a baker’s assistant, the first of her peers to be picked up by a business. The others are in the process right now of looking for a job in which they can utilize their skills.
“It’s exciting,” says Ruff. “that we’ll be able to enter the workforce for more than a few hours a week – because we now have to confidence and skills to do so.”
By: Erin Sofianek