Project SEARCH reaches across Nebraska

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Posted: Friday, March 7, 2014 12:00 am

Setting banquet tables, working in the kitchen, daily housekeeping. While these tasks may seem tedious and repetitive for some, this line of work is ideal and energizing for others.

Offering a means of earning a living, the Embassy Suites and Courtyard by Marriott in La Vista have partnered with the Papillion-La Vista School District and the Project SEARCH program to provide a transition for high school students with disabilities.

“We’re focusing on a really unique group of students,” said McKayla LaBorde, special services supervisor with PLSD.

While roughly 14 percent of the population lives with some sort of disability, LaBorde said Project SEARCH serves young adults who range in age from 18 to 21, who are moderately disabled but completely able to be competitively employed.

“They aren’t going to go to college, but they are going to go out and get a job and be successful,” added Jackie Brown, the Project SEARCH teacher.

In its second year, Brown said the “total immersion program” requires the students to arrive at the hotels around 7:30 a.m. before the start of an 8 a.m. workday. From there, they participate in one of three 10-week rotations in certain lines of work found in the hotel until 1:30 p.m. and then have a class until 2:30 p.m. Currently the program offers eight different focuses for these rotations, such as housekeeping, kitchen or banquet work.

“We really immerse them in the work environment and the culture of the organization,” she said.

As a part of this, each student is assigned a mentor from the hotels to get individual attention. At the end of the year, some students continue on as hired employees while others seek employment elsewhere. This year, the program has 10 students. Last year it hosted seven.

“And we hired, on sight, four,” added David Scott, director of sales for Embassy Suites.

Scott said watching the Project SEARCH students explore, grow and thrive in various aspects of the hotels is an incredible experience, sharing many success stories of the students.

For instance, he spoke of one student, Connor, who was very quiet, but was always quick to learn. After a food delivery arrived one day, staff could not find where he was.

“He was already putting the food away,” Scott said. “You cannot teach that initiative.”

Another example he gave was of Daniel. Scott said Daniel’s mother put it best after learning of the program.

“She said, ‘I suddenly have hope for my son,’” he said, adding Daniel still works for Embassy Suites.

Employment, Scott said, is the ultimate measure of success for the program. Within the national Project SEARCH program, he said there is about a 60 percent employment rate.

“In Nebraska, the average is 86 percent,” he said.

Comparatively, LaBorde said the national average for individuals with disabilities outside of the program is less than 30 percent.

To further increase opportunities for employment, Project SEARCH has partnered with Nebraska Vocational Rehabilitation and the Assistive Technology Partnership, as well as received grants from the PayPal GIVE Team through the e-Bay Foundation and Hilton Travel with Purpose, to create its inaugural Project SEARCH Job Fair on April 16 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the La Vista Conference Center.

“It’s going to be a big event,” LaBorde said.

As of press time, she said 15 school districts from across the state have expressed interest in attending, and the program aims to have 20 to 30 employers — including both hotels, the Omaha Storm Chasers, and the cities of Papillion and La Vista. Employment opportunities will range in skill from data entry and processing to banquet set up to car detailing.

The event will be split into three parts, the first of which are mini-sessions to teach attendants valuable job skills such as dressing for success, resume writing and interviewing tips. Afterward, the students will be given a chance at a skills assessment.

“One of the cooler ones will be the car detailing,” LaBorde said.

As a part of the registration, students can express an interest in certain areas. During the job fair, they will be shown a demonstration, such as detailing a car, then are given a chance to test it for themselves.

“Then, there will be time for them to really connect with the businesses,” she said.

This will be a time for them to line up an interview, or even conduct one on the spot, and make valuable connections.

Scott said there are three main goals to this fair: find the students employment, expose students to the world of work and, lastly, expose employers to the benefit of hiring these students.

“They have traits employers would love employees to have,” he said.

These students don’t call in sick, they love detail-oriented tasks, and, most importantly, “they want to be here,” he said.

Additionally, Scott said the students inspire current employees and patrons.

“They see it and think it’s fabulous because we’re taking care of the community,” he said. “It’s just a little pebble in the pond approach — the ripple effect.”

Scott said the job fair is still seeking potential employers, adding it is free to participate. Another benefit, he said, is a technical session for employers in regards Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act — a new rule stating any company seeking to do business with the federal government must have 7 percent of their staff be individuals with disabilities.

Scott said any employer seeking to participate can contact him at david.scott@JQH.com or at 402-408-5463.

Scott, LaBorde and Brown said Project SEARCH aims to host a job fair every year, but has other future goals.

“We hope to have five, six, 10 host sites across the metro,” Scott said.

“This model can be implemented in a variety of settings,” Brown added.

Already in motion is a new site with PayPal with Bellevue Public Schools, set to launch next school year.

“We just want to increase the post-secondary outcomes for people with disabilities,” LaBorde said.

More information on the national Project SEARCH program can be found online at projectsearch.us.

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