In the span of nine months during his last year of high school, Marcus Ryczek mastered the art of distributing medical supplies, operating a forklift and delivering mail.
Ryczek, who has a learning disability and speech impairment, was among the pioneering students in the Project SEARCH pilot program in Wisconsin.
The transitional program, first developed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 1996, equips young adults who have disabilities with hard and soft job skills needed to secure and succeed in long-term employment. Students polish their employment skills by filling real positions in real workplaces that agree to function as program partners.
Since its inaugural year in Wisconsin – 2011 – Project SEARCH has rapidly expanded statewide and gained momentum through Gov. Scott Walker’s Blueprint for Prosperity Initiative. By 2017, the program is slated to have a presence at 27 worksites, thanks to an $850,000 investment from the state.
In southeastern Wisconsin, Project SEARCH worksites include Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, Waukesha Memorial Hospital and Froedtert Hospital – thanks to program partner Easter Seals Southeast Wisconsin. The Milwaukee County Zoo is another regional program host with partner Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Wisconsin Inc.
Beth Lohmann, workforce development director at Easter Seals, has devoted the past 15 years of her career to helping people with disabilities find gainful employment. Within those 15 years, Lohmann was a force in launching Project SEARCH’s first regional sites.
“I’ve never seen a program that’s been so successful like this,” Lohmann said.
Since 2011, more than 75 percent of the 64 Project SEARCH graduates in programs run by Easter Seals have obtained employment after completing the full nine weeks of internship experience, according to Lohmann.
She largely points to the commitment of the participating businesses and collaboration among a cross sector of partners as key drivers of the program’s success.
During the course of Project SEARCH programming, student participants work six-and-a-half hours each weekday at their assigned workplaces. Each student fulfills three different internships so that he or she can be exposed to a variety of skillsets and learn increasingly more complex tasks.
Each student is surrounded by an entourage of support, including a workplace mentor and a job coach affiliated with the partnering nonprofit organization.
After Jean Schultz, director of community benefit at ProHealth Care Inc., first observed Project SEARCH in action at Children’s Hospital, she became “absolutely enamored with the program,” she said.
While helping facilitate the program at Waukesha Memorial Hospital, she has observed all kinds of changes in students.
Some emerge from a shell, she said, while others already bursting with energy learn appropriate conversation and tone.
The program has had an equally dramatic effect on internal staff, according to Schultz.
“I think it has helped us to change our culture into one that is more accepting, more inclusive,” she said. “I think our hearts are softened because of the impact of these interns and their families.”
For Ryczek, who interned at Children’s Hospital, the program has led directly to a viable career. Today, he is a full-time employee in distribution services at Children’s Hospital, building on the self-confidence he developed through Project SEARCH.
Both he and his mom, Kathi Ryczek-Ebner, remain loud advocates of the program.
“I think it’s important because it shows that everyone can go out there and work,” Ryczek said.
“It’s definitely a vital necessity in our state and in our region, because without Project SEARCH, a lot of people would not have opportunities to have self-sustaining employment, particularly persons with disabilities,” Ryczek-Ebner said.