Lincoln University in Jefferson City has entered into a partnership with the program Project SEARCH, which secures competitive employment for people with disabilities by partnering with several Missouri-based organizations to provide real-world opportunities for high school students. Throughout the school year, students work three internships that place them in various departments on campus.
Students who are eligible for the program are selected through an application process. Once accepted students receive class credit for their work with Lincoln University, as well as a certificate from Project SEARCH for completing the program.
Derek Woodis, employment advisor and one of the leaders of the Project SEARCH program in Jefferson City, said the ultimate goal is for all of the interns to find competitive employment after they’ve graduated from high school.
“We don’t want them to be stuck in jobs where they’re making minimum wage,” Woodis said. “They have skills and sometimes these certain skills can get them into jobs where they’re making 10, 11, 12 dollars an hour and actually get them into careers not just bouncing from job to job.”
Some of those skills include technological skills. Woodis said a lot of the students are technologically savvy so building and improving their technical skills is something they focus on. Some interns scan photos into archives, input data or work desk jobs like answering and forwarding phone calls.
The program takes on a variety of students including those with physical and developmental disabilities. Woodis said one of the more common challenges his team tends to focus on is communication and conquering social situations.
Paul Small, who serves as a supervisor and mentor to project SEARCH interns at the office of student activities, has worked with multiple students including Sean Bernal who is a senior at Jefferson City High School. Bernal refers to himself as a unique individual and as one who doesn’t play by the rules of the norm crowd. His reddish pink hair is one of the ways he expresses himself. He and his vibrant hair take on a wide range of tasks throughout the day and even an extra job he bestowed upon himself.
“Answering phones, taking messages, walking to the print shop and getting delivery and kind of just being Mr. Smiley,” Bernal said.
Mr. Smiley is someone Small said he and his coworkers greatly appreciate. Small said Sean’s growth in his communication skills will help him make a smooth transition to the professional workforce. He said he has shown Sean how to greet guests, answer phones and perform other administrative duties around the office.
“I think he has developed his people skills, I think he has developed customer service,” Small said. “He makes sure that he’s very attentive as well as he continues to again to follow out with those duties every day. I think he’s going to transition very well because he retains it.”
Woodis said the students were leery at the beginning of the program but they’ve now become comfortable with their coworkers and familiar work settings. He also said they’ve gained perspectives on professional work settings and what it means to be independent and responsible employees.
All of this makes Woodis very excited to release them into the real world.
“They’re ready to go now,” Woodis said. “Also socially and for life skills and budgeting and things. They’ve come a long way, through this we’ve taught them a lot of that and they just keep climbing and I think they sky’s the limit for them.”
Woodis said he enjoys watching his interns learn about professionalism and finding skills they can use to make themselves successful workers just like everyone else.
“My favorite part of anything, working with young adults is seeing them grow,” Woodis said. “I don’t think anything else matters at the end of the day other than seeing these guys grow and watching their confidence build and seeing them realize that hey we have the same opportunities as everyone else.”