The time when a student is preparing to leave high school is full of hope and promise — for a job, for independence and for a sense of accomplishment. Some students who receive special education services, like Danny White, age 18, from Ellicott City, are benefiting from extra help in their transition to adulthood and being part of the workforce. That is the mission of Project SEARCH, launched in Howard County government sites last fall.

“Danny and his classmates are like anyone else. They want to work hard and accept responsibility. They want to be a part of something meaningful and be successful. They simply relate to the world a bit differently,” said Kim McKay, program manager for Project SEARCH from The Arc of Howard County. “They need guidance on the soft skills in the workplace that most of us readily navigate on a daily basis: interacting with a boss, appropriate conversation and behavior with co-workers, or how to be part of a team.”

Through both classroom and workplace experience, interns like White gain communication, computer and job skills, as well as confidence and self-esteem, that will help them be competitive candidates for other jobs in the public or private sectors. Dedicated job coaching also supports the needs of the interns and the employers by suggesting accommodations or offering additional tutoring if a concern arises. The objective is to coordinate the best fit for all involved.

“I am proud that Howard County government could be a driving force to support students like Danny and shape their future,” said Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman. “By hosting these young people, we are building skills, confidence and opportunities for them that will influence the course of their lives. Their abilities and their desire to achieve are inspiring when they are given the chance.”

The Project SEARCH Model

Spanning an entire school year, Project SEARCH offers three 10-week internships in various career paths to students with learning and other disabilities in their final year of high school. The on-site training and practical experience allow these candidates to become more marketable in their job search and access opportunities to be productive in the community.

“This program offers an important bridge to independence and a strong foundation for these young people who desire equal opportunities to make it on their own,” said Judy Pattik, special education coordinator for the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS). “A classroom just cannot offer them the same life experience as a program like this.”

The internationally-based program was launched in Howard County in August 2014 by The Arc of Howard County and Howard County government, in partnership with the HCPSS, the Howard County Autism Society and the Maryland Division of Rehabilitation Services (DORS). Funding is mainly through private grants to the Arc from The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, the Lisa Higgins Hussman Foundation and state-funded DORS initiatives.

Daily Routines

In this initial group, a dozen interns like White, who were qualified to participate by the HCPSS, start the day from 8 to 9 a.m. in a classroom at Howard County government’s Thomas Dorsey Building. A HCPSS teacher and paraeducator, along with an Arc job coach, discuss job-related issues and conduct exercises that help the interns build social and computer skills.

“We have great fun, while the group learns how to interact in a work environment,” said McKay. “Then they get to practice in a real job setting.”

After class, a bus delivers the interns to their work assignments, where they have a supervisor and a mentor. While the supervisor oversees the performance of the intern, the mentor is a co-worker who offers the young people a sounding board in order to ask questions, get help or voice concerns.

In Howard County, departments including Inspections, Licenses and Permits; Public Works; Planning and Zoning; Central Services; Recreation and Parks; and Citizen Services are hosting interns who perform customer service, clerical, janitorial and other duties. Assignments range from staffing the front desk at a community center to helping maintain the county’s vehicle maintenance shop, like White did during his first assignment.

Changing Lives

Under this guidance, tremendous transformations are occurring among White and his fellow interns, as well as touching the culture of county job sites. Family members and program staff alike report that White and the others take great pride in their responsibilities and make special connections with county co-workers as they open up and feel comfortable. Entire county departments are developing an expanded tolerance and understanding of the differences of others because of the interaction and deep caring for their trainees.

“These interns are welcomed and engaged by our staff,” said Kittleman. “When you meet Danny and his classmates, you cannot help but be changed for the better.”

This article was provided by Howard County Government and The Arc of Howard County. For information about being a host employer or participating in Project SEARCH, contact Program Manager Kim McKay at 410-730-0638, ext. 211, or [email protected].