Agencies pilot internships for specials needs adults

Two west suburban and two state agencies are partnering with a major employer to pilot one-year internships in the fall for young adults with special needs.

Project Search is a proven program right for Illinois and especially the western suburbs, said Karen Steffan, vocational program coordinator for the La Grange Area Department of Special Education.

In agreeing to pilot the project developed at a Cincinnati hospital, the west suburban partners hope to pave the way and make the program available throughout Illinois. Opportunities are sorely lacking in the state, ranked 50th in the nation for providing services to people with disabilities, Steffan said.

“I think it’s wonderful. We’re so excited about it,” said Jo Anne Kummer of Riverside, whose daughter, Angelica, 19, receives special education services at Riverside-Brookfield High School.

Jo Anne Kummer and her husband, Tom, said they’re concerned about job opportunities for their daughter once she turns 22 and is no longer eligible for transitional services. High schools are required to provide training for jobs and independent living for students, ages 18 to 22, who have completed high school requirements.

“We continually wonder if something is going to be available as a good fit,” Jo Anne Kummer said. “She has a lot of potential, and right now there’s nothing there for her. She wants some challenge.”

Project Search differs from other job placement programs for transitional students in the amount of time and effort invested in each intern. Up to 12 students are carefully screened for interests and abilities and spend the last year before their 23rd birthday full time at the job site as an unpaid intern.

“This requires a significant commitment on the part of families. There is no transportation provided,” Steffan said. “Participants really are removed from being a student. They’re in the adult world.”

Steffan said once the host site is identified, she hopes to work with Pace bus services to assist families.

Talks are underway with Loyola Medical Center and Adventist La Grange Memorial Hospital to host Project Search, Steffan said. One difficulty in finalizing arrangements is finding space at either hospital for a permanent classroom, she said.

Project Search was launched in 1996 at a hospital, because such facilities offer many job opportunities. Interns with Down syndrome, Asperger syndrome or traumatic brain injury have been placed successfully to sterilize instruments, perform data entry tasks or transport patients to various tests and procedures in a hospital complex.

In other states, the program also has been duplicated in other industries and hosted by firms with 200 employees or more, such as banking, government, restaurants, manufacturing and retail.

In addition to providing interns the potential for meaningful jobs with opportunities for advancement, the program changes the climate of the host site.

Daily interactions with workers with disabilities raise the level of awareness and understanding from fellow employees and customers, said Kathryn Leibforth, program director of the West Suburban Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which is helping to promote Project Search.

Other partners in addition to LADSE and the host site are Helping Hand Center, based in Countryside, and the Illinois Division of Rehabilitation Services and the Division of Developmental Disabilities.

The program is open to students at Lyons Township, Riverside-Brookfield, Hinsdale Central, Hinsdale South and other area high schools.

“We’re breaking ground with this program for the state of Illinois,” Steffan said. “There is a huge need in our community, and we’re excited to have LADSE be the first to kick it off.”

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