Project SEARCH collaboration: creating a bright future for students with disabilities


Imagine what can happen when 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.

"One of our on-going challenges is to ensure that our students with disabilities make a smooth transition to life after high school," said Dr. Atwater, KPBSD superintendent. "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."

On November 27, 2012, an open house at Central Peninsula Hospital introduced the community to the program and students. Erin Riehle, co-founder and senior director of Project SEARCH, offered a challenging and insightful presentation about long-term, successful employment of people with disabilities who learn to perform very complex, repeatable duties in the workplace with incredible accuracy and success.


Fran Stetson, the KPBSD program teacher said, "The Project SEARCH model views hiring people with disabilities as smart business and has proven the disabled person can rise to the challenge. Being the Project SEARCH teacher is a dream come true for me, and being part of the team that gives each intern a real-life, integrated meaningful work experience and promotes competitive employment for people with disabilities has rejuvenated my teaching soul. A challenge for me is to match interns with jobs and work environments that are compatible to interns' skills and interests; and to find those high-quality internships that involve complex and systematic work. I am deeply moved when a student shows confidence and independence at their internship site and I witness the confidence and satisfaction they feel—it all makes my heart feel good. I am learning the Kenai Peninsula community is recognizing and accepting people with disabilities; that our businesses want to be involved with training and hiring people with disabilities. Our open house proved to me that there are many interested people who share our goal of employing people with disabilities." During the open house, student interns showcased their learning from their respective internship rotations, and talked with attendees.

Student interns say:

  • "I'm learning a lot of job using the commercial dishwasher and filing medical forms," said Sarah Mohorcich. "I want to get a job, learn new skills, and live on my own."
  • Nat Hammack said, "My high school teacher, Mr. Willets, motivated me to become involved and encouraged me to go. [Project SEARCH is] getting me to do jobs that I wouldn't have done otherwise. I'm learning how to rotate and stock freight and how to budget my money."
  • "I wanted to get a paying job," said student Vincent Chavarria. "I'm learning to clean patients' rooms, take out trash, clean restrooms and fold laundry, and getting ready for the adult world of work."

Liz Cristiano, Project SEARCH job coach said, "I see first-hand the benefits Project SEARCH provides to student interns and job mentors. They develop a unique partnership based on respect for each other."


Parents speak:

"We are very grateful to be involved as a family in the very first year of Project SEARCH here on the Kenai Peninsula. Project SEARCH being a transitional program from school to work is ideal timing for our daughter. Sarah is adjusting very well into the total immersion of job-skills training through our business professional, Central Peninsula Hospital. We want to especially thank Fran Stetson and Liz Cristiano with the school district and those employees at the hospital that are providing Sarah this career exploration opportunity. Project SEARCH is a program our community needs to hear about and understand that a new standard is being set to carry on for generations."— John and Laura Mohorcich, parents

"I work in the hospital. Project SEARCH had a couple students come through my department. I asked what the program was about and if it was possible that my son could be involved in this. Seeing the responsibilities that were being learned was a ray hope for me—the chance for my son to accomplish the next stage of his life. I am very pleased with his progress. The attitude he is learning is bleeding over into his everyday home and public life." – Alysia Smythe, parent

"People with disabilities are the largest unemployed and underemployed group in the United States and youth with intellectual or developmental disabilities have even a greater chance to experience long-term unemployment. The Governor's Council on Disabilities and Special Education brought Project SEARCH to Alaska for two reasons," said Patrick Reinhart from the Governor's Council on Disabilities and Special Education. "One, to replicate a proven model of employment training for youth with disabilities whose outcome is simple—good jobs and the shot at a career. Second, to demonstrate to the business community that hiring and training these young people for real jobs is a good investment in a largely untapped talent pool. We want to see more of a willingness to hire people with disabilities, regardless of their involvement in Project SEARCH."


Project SEARCH is a collaborative partnership with KPBSD, Central Peninsula Hospital, Frontier Community Services, the Governor's Council on Disabilities and Special Education, Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, and Project SEARCH. Cincinnati Children's Hospital launched the new Project SEARCH High School Transition Program at Central Peninsula Hospital. "Our ultimate goal as a district and within the special education department is to meet the individual needs of each student and to have each student obtain job ready skills or be ready to transition to post-secondary educational or vocational opportunities," said Clayton Holland, director of KPBSD pupil services. "Project Search helps to do this while also educating the community at large about the many capabilities of our students with disabilities. It has been inspiring to watch our community business leaders start to learn about what is happening with Project SEARCH and to see the enthusiasm being generated. We have the potential to really educate the whole community about people with disabilities and what they can accomplish and contribute to the work place and to our communities. I am thankful that the hospital has been such a wonderful partner."


"I'm learning how much our community cares about students with disabilities, and that business leaders in the community want to know more about what is happening and how they can get involved."

- Clayton Holland, director of pupil services, KPBSD

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 employees that will add value to an organization in the future."


The Governor's Council on Disabilities and Special Education has helped start four Project SEARCH sites in Alaska in the past two years and we want to develop two more over the next two years. Reinhart said, "As the statewide coordinator of this effort, I have seen the graduating classes of four separate groups and the one thing that stands out the most for me is the pride exhibited by these young people and the genuine belief that they are going to get a job and succeed. You can see that even now in the first group of students at Central Peninsula Hospital. Even though the number of students in each Project SEARCH site in the state is low, i.e. 3-8 at each site, there is substantial positive spillover going on in each community. For example, other families who have a student with a disability are starting to realize the possibility that their child can be, and generally wants to be, a contributing and productive citizen who works for a living. Also, businesses are seeing the results and understanding they have this untapped talent pool that only requires a bit of creative thinking and training to get them working in their business. Through Project SEARCH, we are seeing a whole philosophical shift among special educators and disability providers from "we'll take care of you" to "what do you want to do for a living and what can we do to make that happen?"


Shawn Reynolds, HRM CPR COR, job developer at Frontier Community Services said, "It is such a thrill to be able to see our interns from the beginning to the end of the program, how they are on the first day, nervous but very willing to move forward, and the amount of confidence gained on a daily basis. This is what we do at Frontier Community Services, and this gives me a chance to assist with another organization that provides the services to school age interns. It is an opportunity for the school district, DVR, the Governor's office, and Frontier Community Services to work together for the same goal of providing skilled persons to the local community workforce. Without the assistance of our hospital, that provides the training locations for our interns, this outcome would be difficult at best. Through the cooperation of all entities involved, I am learning how the other organizations provide services and support, and now we are all talking and working with each other for the same outcome: skilled employees for the community."


"KPBSD saw a need to provide additional services and support for the transition to work of our students with disabilities," said Denise Kelly, program coordinator, pupil services. "I personally am excited to be involved with this program because providing opportunities for young adults with disabilities to earn competitive employment and to live productively within their communities, with their families, is enriching for me on a personal level. I believe that we have a responsibility to hold high expectations for all of our students with disabilities and to provide them the support they need to meet those expectations. This program meets that responsibility."

The Project SEARCH High School Transition Program is a total workplace immersion, facilitating a seamless combination of classroom instruction, career exploration, and relevant job-skills training through strategically designed internships. Through a series of three targeted internships the students acquire competitive, marketable, and transferable skills to enable them to apply for a related position. Students also build communication, teamwork and problem-solving skills that are important to their overall development as a young worker. The goal: independent adults prepared for competitive employment opportunities.

Kenai Peninsula Project SEARCH is made possible through the collaborative efforts of Project SEARCH Cincinnati Children's Hospital, Central Peninsula Hospital, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, the Governor's Council on Disabilities and Special Education, Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, and Frontier Community Services.