A partnership between Bellevue Public Schools, Nebraska Vocational Rehabilitation and Nebraska Medicine Bellevue aims to provide individuals with disabilities hands-on job training.

Project SEARCH is a nine-month, unpaid program for students ages 18 to 21 who have graduated high school and need further training and development for paid employment. The individuals are referred by parents or BPS teachers to complete the program. There are seven interns this year.

The interns spend a school year immersed in a real-job setting to develop skills in writing cover letters, resumes, application writing and mock interviews, as well as social skills.

Students rotate different internships a day. Project SEARCH is partnered with different rotations in facilities, general nutrition, security and more.

“We really focus on the transferable, more soft employ-ability skills versus hard skills,” said Renee Proksel, Project SEARCH’s coordinator and former Bellevue West High School teacher. “Our curriculum covers basically a whole scope and sequence to prepare them for being as independent as possible.”

Since beginning the program at Nebraska Medicine Bellevue last year, Proksel said it was important to give the students a chance to work in Bellevue and interact with the community.

“We had nine interns last year, and seven of those nine are working competitively in the community,” she said. “It definitely helps individuals, but I think it has brought a lot to the culture of the business.”

Jose Santiago, a Project SEARCH intern who works the front and back at the hospital cafe, said he’s gaining skills with the program.

“I’m learning how they do things differently here at the hospital in the cafe compared to working at a restaurant like Chick-fil-A,” Santiago said.

Another piece to Project SEARCH is the Business Advisory Council, where businesses across Bellevue are encouraged to go to the hospital to evaluate and discuss the skills of the students.

“That’s really how we can connect and bring the full circle back to employment,” said Brian Schram, business liaison for Project SEARCH.

Project SEARCH has allowed individuals with disabilities, who have the highest unemployment rate of any minority group, to have an 80 percent employable rate upon completion, Proksel said.

“I am a strong advocate for all individuals, but particularly, I think that having a voice in our community to speak up and advocate for individuals with disabilities that they are very able and should be embraced by our community,” Proksel said.

Along with the students developing job skills, Schram said he has also learned a lot from the interns.

“They do great things here. Even the first day they’re here, we see they do really add value,” he said. “This is not just us partnering and giving these students a place to come, we’re actually getting just as much from it as they are.”

Schram said he hopes to see more interns in Project SEARCH.

“I want everybody that’s eligible and fit to do this program and I hope by getting the word out, I think the awareness will come,” he said. “I would hate for a kid who just didn’t hear of it doesn’t get in.”

Proksel said she hopes Project SEARCH helps grow awareness in the Bellevue community about individuals with disabilities and their employability.

“These are individuals who really didn’t have a plan for the future. To watch them transform from when they first walk in the door on the first day to our graduation in May, it’s a complete metamorphic change,” she said.

“They suddenly find a voice, they mature and they are esteemed. That is the greatest gift of the program, to see that they find that they are capable.”

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