By Andrea Cordle
Melissa Adkins said her son, Zachary, was on the wrong path. The Westland High School student had a chip on his shoulder and was getting into trouble at school and at home.
Now, Zachary has some responsibility. He is one of several students from the South-Western City Schools District taking part in the Project SEARCH High School Transition Program.
Project SEARCH gives real-life work experience to students with significant intellectual disabilities. The experience, which combines independent living skills and employment training, helps the students make a successful transition from school to adult life.
The school district collaborated with Ohio Health to give the students work and life experience. On Nov. 3, the students got to showcase their newfound skills at Doctors Hospital, where they spend much of their time in training.
As part of the program, Zachary helps physicians prepare for surgery. He also transports patients at Doctors Hospital.
“Since starting this program, he (Zachary) has improved a lot,” said Melissa Adkins. “I have seen a big change in his attitude and I am so proud of him.”
Zachary said he will be the first male in his family to graduate from high School. Once he graduates, he wants a career at Ohio Health.
The Project SEARCH program involves an extensive period of training, job coaching and continuous feedback from teachers and employers. At the end of the training program, students with intellectual disabilities can seek employment in rewarding jobs.
According to Amy Schakat, coordinator of career and technical education at South-Western City Schools, this is the first year this program has been offered in the district.
Working with special needs students, Schakat saw a need for a transitional program in the district. She said this program has helped the students thrive.
“I see students who are afraid to talk, afraid to raise their hand in class and even struggle to come to school. With the experience, they are a part of something. They are contributing and they focus on what they can do,” said Schakat.
Kayleen Buckley, a student at Central Crossing High School, said she works with nutrition and food preparation at Doctors Hospital. Her grandparents, Bill and Linda Buckley, of Grove City, said Kayleen has gained confidence since starting Project SEARCH.
“This program has been wonderful,” said Bill Buckley. “She is growing up right before our eyes and is gaining so much independence.”
The grandparents said the program gives the students an idea of how to handle themselves in the workplace setting.
“It’s really what these kids need,” said Bill.
Also working in the nutrition field at Doctors Hospital is Grove City High School student Samantha Atkins. She prepares food, cleans and cuts fruits and vegetables and serves visitors in the cafeteria.
Atkins said she works Monday through Friday, just like a regular job.
“I am learning a lot,” she said.
The Grove City student said she hopes to take the skills she has learned to land her dream job, a position at Best Buy, where she can work with music and movies.
Leanna Brown, a student at Franklin Heights High School, is helping to keep the grounds neat at Doctors Hospital.
She said she plants bulbs, pulls weeds and gets to use the edger.
“I am not sure what job I want after school yet, but I really like to work outside.” said Brown.
The district has nine students in the program. They started at the beginning of the school year and they will remain in the transition program until the end of the year.
A committee selects the students who participate in the program. The students must be in their last year of high school eligibility. The students go through a series of three internships to help them acquire competitive and marketable skills to allow them to apply for a related position after graduation. The students also build communication, teamwork and problem-solving skills.
“I see a tremendous increase in confidence,” said Schakat. “They are willing to work. They want to learn.”
To learn more about Project SEARCH, visit projectsearch.us.