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Project SEARCH brings internships to special needs students

Five of the seven interns from Project SEARCH with Y.A.L.E. School Instructor Ernie Laux, right, are pictured here as they begin their classroom instruction at Kennedy Health's Management Services Center in Cherry Hill.

Most job applications today end with a series of diversity and inclusion questions, including, “Do you have a disability?”Those answering “yes” are a growing part of the workforce, according to a recent U.S. Department of Labor report, which reported an increase in employed individuals with disabilities or developmental issues, despite a current increase in unemployment of the general public.

And while there has been greater awareness in recent years of employing individuals with disabilities, one organization has been championing the idea for nearly two decades.

And it is coming to New Jersey.

Project SEARCH, which began in Cincinnati, is launching for the first time at a handful of New Jersey hospitals this year. The unpaid internship program helps young adults gain useful skills and experience that can be used on a job application.

Project SEARCH has launched at Hackensack University Medical Center, Holy Name Medical Center and Kennedy Health.

Debbie Deissroth, corporate director of learning and development at Kennedy Health, said that, in all her years of being in the human resources profession, this is the most impressive program she as ever seen.

The program allows for individuals who are able to live independently and desire meaningful work — beyond basic part-time or shift work — where they can grow in a profession, Deissroth said.

Kennedy Health has partnered with Y.A.L.E. School, which has 12 campuses across New Jersey that address the needs of students on the autism spectrum, helping them with social learning while offering emotional and behavioral support.

Kennedy Health is working with students on the autism spectrum.

They began with an orientation period in September, which included being in a classroom environment for an hour to prepare for the day. They also have job coaches, learn etiquette and business skills, as well as social skills that many take for granted, Deissroth said.

The interns work in a variety of departments for four hours a day. The goal is to have them develop skills in three of the 10 departments that agreed to participate at Kennedy.

Following the internship, a business advisory council, which includes business leaders in the region, offers networking and employment opportunities. The students may also be offered employment at Kennedy.

Currently, there are seven students at Kennedy, Deissroth said, but other areas of the country where the program has been a success have had double that.

Kennedy was first approached about the program in May and quickly signed on. Students can participate in areas such as environmental services, facilities and maintenance, food, laboratory, physical therapy, medical records, human resources and computer support, Deissroth said.

So far, the feedback has been positive from Kennedy staff, Deissroth said.

“As much as the students are going to get from us in this journey of theirs, our associates are going to get so much more in reward,” Deissroth said.

E-mail to: [email protected]

Anjalee Khemlani

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