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Employment program to support special needs

News editor

Ella Jost is a lot like other 13-year-old girls, but Down syndrome also makes her unique.

While the parents of Ella’s peers dream about their kids becoming doctors, lawyers, or successful entrepreneurs, Kimberlee Jost, Ella’s mom, has grappled with an uncertain future.

“To tell you the truth, if I go there too much, it’s a very fearful place,” Jost said. “Especially here in Marion County, there’s not a lot of options for Ella after she graduates.”

Other parents of children with disabilities have moved their families to larger towns with more services and opportunities, and Jost said she knows others who are thinking about it. That’s not something Jost and her husband, Bruce, want to do.

“Ella has lived her life here in Hillsboro,” she said. “These are the people who know her, these are the people who love her, and this is probably the best place for her.”

Enter Project SEARCH, a job internship program for young adults with disabilities that teaches them skills to compete for meaningful entry-level employment.

Marion County Special Education Cooperative, with startup funding from Northview Developmental Services in Newton, is planning to implement the nationally acclaimed program next year.

“I have students in my mind right now that I know will both benefit from the internships but also contribute highly to the businesses that they’re hired into,” MCSEC special education coordinator Laura Baldwin said. “We want this to be in our county and have these opportunities without putting them on a bus for a two-hour ride.”

Project SEARCH co-foundeer Susie Rutkowski said MCSEC’s program will provide between six and 10 internships for young adults ages 19 to 30.

“They’re totally immersed in a host business for one school year,” she said. “You’ve got a teacher and job coach that are guiding the process. A student comes together with their team six times a year. They participate in three separate internships with the goal of gaining experience and skills to go get a job.”

Rather than scatter interns across different businesses, Project SEARCH works with just one company to provide internships across different departments and jobs. Rutkowski said several potential partners have been contacted.

Jost said having the program in the county increases the chances of success for participants.

“We all have gotten jobs by who we know,” she said. “If I send my child to another community that doesn’t know her, the likelihood that she’s going to succeed there is so small. But she could get a job here based on who she knows and prove herself, just like you would, just like I would.”

The prospect that Ella will have the support she needs to learn job skills and land a regular job gives Jost a greater sense of stability and peace about the future.

“I have a business, and I would give it up so Ella could work and I would be her job coach,” she said. “Now that doesn’t have to happen. My entire goal since she has been little has been for her to get a job in life. Isn’t that what we want for all of our kids? Now, with Project SEARCH, I feel like Ella has a future, I have a future, our family has a future here in Marion County.”

For more information about Project SEARCH, contact MCSEC by calling Laura Baldwin at (620) 382-2858.

Last modified Nov. 23, 2016

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