School District & Hospital collaborate for Project Search school-to-work program

Project Search is a program started 15 years ago in Ohio to help those with disabilities achieve the American dream of independence.  The high school transition program is a unique, business-led, one-year, school-to-work program that takes place entirely at the workplace.  “We recognized that people with disabilities want to work and are capable of working but they rarely get the opportunity to practice or learn skills. Our program brings together partners around the community and we ask that partner to allow young adults with disabilities who are in high school to come in as an intern to spend one full school year inside their business where they can rotate through internships where they learn functional skills that can then use to get a job,” explained Project Search co-founder Erin Riehle on a recent visit to Alaska.  According to Riehle 60% of people with disabilities end up working in cleaning positions because people think that is an easy job or the only skill that they will be able to do, “In fact that type of job is often very difficult and requires decision making and perhaps mixing of chemicals and what we have found is almost counter intuitive, that is that our world is filled jobs that are complex but systematic, routine but hard and that tends to be the best job for a person with a significant disability and the business world is full of these jobs and we can teach someone with a disability who perhaps can’t even read or write but can learn to put together kits that are used in an operating room or a materials management room and get all the supplies where they are needed, we can teach them to file medical records or work for an oil company. Jobs that are hard but tend to be routine and often cause non-disabled people to become bored and leave, yet a person with a disability will tend to stay in that position for a much longer period of time which reduces training costs to the company.  Our ultimate goal is independent adults prepared for competitive employment opportunities,” she said.   

Kenai Peninsula Project Search is being made possible through the collaborative efforts of Project Search Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Central Peninsula Hospital (CPH), and Kenai Peninsula Borough School District (KPBSD), the Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education, Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, Frontier Community Services.  At a recent open house held at CPH Dr. Atwater, KPBSD superintendent said, “One of our on-going challenges is to ensure that our students with disabilities make a smooth transition to life after high school. Project Search is thus, a wonderful way to help us meet this challenge. I am thrilled that our partnership with Central Peninsula Hospital is working so well for our students.”  Rick Davis, Central Peninsula Hospital CEO said, “We are very pleased to participate as a business partner in the Project Search program. These students are learning to perform basic job requirements such as coming to work on time, being neatly dressed, and coming to work with a positive attitude. The program is designed to help prepare these students to enter the job market as good employs that will add value to an organization in the future. Imagine what can happen if a school district and hospital collaborate to create a business-led, one-year, school-to-work program for students with disabilities that takes place entirely at the workplace.”

“We have three interns this year and we are looking forward to at least doubling that number next year.  The program has been completely awesome and have very much enjoyed having the student interns and they are learning skills that will allow them to compete for jobs in the work place,” Denise Kelly, KPBSD program coordinator told the Dispatch.  John Dodd, CPH vice president Human Resources commented, “It was a little scary at first but we had some great professionals working with us that helped work through the issues that all employers face wondering how the program will work and we have been pleasantly surprised and never been disappointed and has been a real blessing to CPH and our employees because these interns have integrated into the workforce here and are part of that workforce enjoying the highs and the lows that all the employees have and are experiencing the teamwork necessary in any workforce and the importance of customer service that are skills that will help them regardless of where they find permanent employment in the future,” said Dodd.  Interns at CPH have been working in environmental service, nutrition/food services and materials management.  For more information on the Kenai Peninsula Project Search contact KPBSD pupil services at 714-8881 or go to