Students with disabilities share success stories with School Board

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Everyone likes a good success story, and a very special group of students in the Edmonds School District’s VOICE program provided some inspiring ones at Tuesday evening’s meeting of the Edmonds School Board.

VOICE (Vocational Opportunities in Community Engagement) is a long-running program through the Edmonds School District that connects young people with developmental disabilities to local employers in the community. The goal is to help these young people get experience and develop job skills that will allow them to find permanent employment and thereby experience the joy and satisfaction of being a productive, contributing member of the community.

This year the VOICE program expanded its reach by including Project Search, an innovative program that connects developmentally disabled students with large employers in the health care industry. Begun in 1996 at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Project Search now operates at more than 550 large hospitals in all 50 states and 11 foreign countries. In its first year operating in Edmonds, Project Search was able to place ten VOICE students in a range of jobs at Swedish-Edmonds Hospital.

“Hospitals are like little cities,” said Project Search program director Ben Hammond. “In addition to traditional health-care positions you normally associate with hospitals, they offer a full range of ancillary jobs from retail to grounds keeping to food services to general maintenance and more. This makes large hospitals a great place to gain a wide range of job experiences, and a perfect setting for what we’re trying to do.”

According to Hammond, students working through Project Search have enjoyed phenomenal long-term employment success. “Nationwide, the employment rate for people with developmental disabilities is only 18.5 percent,” he says. “But students who have been through the Project Search program enjoy a 75 percent employment rate, most in jobs that require at least an 18-hour work week.”

But Tuesday evening was the students’ chance to tell the School Board what they’d been doing, enthusiastically regaling them with stories and photos detailing their work experience in everything from food service and gift shop staffing to assisting with patient care in oncology and labor and delivery.

Stories included Blake, who works in sterile processing and on the grounds crew.  “I really love my work in grounds maintenance,” he said. “This is something I could really do for years.”

Crystal works in labor and delivery preparing materials for patients and visitors, but also works in the gift shop alongside Blake. “I love the retail work,” she said. “I like interacting with people and helping them find just what they need.”

“We’re just amazed at the success of Project Search with our VOICE students,” said School District spokesperson Debbie Joyce Jakala. “They’ve made amazing strides considering they just began this school year.”

–Story and photos by Larry Vogel

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