MINOCQUA — Three young people with developmental disabilities have received certificates of completion from the school-to-work program known as Project SEARCH (Special Education as Requirements in Charter Schools) and are entering the workforce toward a more independent future.

Friends and family, school instructors and administrators, as well as co-workers from their training sites and agency representatives attended the graduation ceremony Wednesday, June 5, at the Campanile Center for the Arts in Minocqua.

There were hugs, tears of happiness and smiles all-around as words of praise and congratulations were bestowed upon the three.

Mary Deditz, mother of one of the graduates, Nicole (Nikki), expressed how much the program has meant to her daughter and family.

“I would ask someone in the audience to please keep track how many times I say wonderful, awesome, fantastic, great,” Mary Deditz said. “You get the idea, because that is what Project SEARCH is all about and that’s what it means to us.

“The project SEARCH program allowed Nikki to be more independent, grow and learn so much on her own with the spectacular guidance of the instructor, ‘Miss V’, Jennifer Varsik,” the mother added. 

Varsik is a special education instructor at Lakeland Union High School in Minocqua.

Inspirational day

Lakeland Union High School District Administrator Rob Way presented Project SEARCH certificates to Nicole Deditz of Eagle River, Justice Babcock of Tomahawk and Desirae Knitt of Rhinelander.

“You all have inspired me to be thinking about the many gifts that you bring and really the purpose of education,” Way said. “We talk about working hard together, building communities, joyful learning, an attitude of gratitude, mercy.

“You really have inspired me to think about how important it is to build communities, and it really is a tribute to all these different agencies that are able to work together for the betterment of all the children.”

The ceremony held extra meaning for Babcock, who received her high school diploma from Katherine Strong, director of special education/pupil services at Tomahawk School District.

Each graduate took to the lectern to recount their training experiences and to thank the people who mentored them along the way. All three have landed jobs.

Also congratulating the trio was Sandy Anderson, president of Howard Young Medical Center, the host site in Woodruff for the local Project SEARCH.

“I’m humbled and honored to be part of their journey,” she told the audience.

Patricia Nolan, director of the North Central Re­gion of the Di­vision of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR), said employers should be looking to hire Project SEARCH graduates.

“Everybody in Wisconsin deserves the opportunity to succeed, and to develop the job skills they need to achieve those goals,” Nolan said. “As today’s graduates have demonstrated, people with disabilities want to work and are defined by their countless, unique abilities rather than their limitations.”

To the graduates, she said: “At Project SEARCH sites along with hundreds of employers across Wisconsin who agree, you are some of the best employees that an employer can have.”

The partnership

Project SEARCH is a partnership between Lakeland, Tomahawk and Rhinelander school districts, Howard Young, businesses, Headwaters Inc., the Department of Workforce Development/Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, and others.

The high school transition program provides classroom instruction, career exploration and hands-on training at job sites. The goal is to help graduates achieve employment in their communities after graduation.

The one-year, unpaid internship program is open to young adults, ages 18-24, with intellectual and developmental disabilities. There are 27 Project SEARCH programs in Wisconsin, numerous others across the United States and even internationally.

Project SEARCH first started at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 1996 when a nurse became aware individuals with disabilities were not being provided employment and educational opportunities. The North Woods version started at Howard Young in the fall of 2017.

Classroom to job

The trio went through an application process. Once accepted, they met five days a week at Howard Young. In the classroom they learned employment, social and independent living skills. They also had hands-on training, completing three, 10-week long internship rotations.

Special education instructors and career coaches worked with the interns and staff in real work settings at Howard Young and also at One Penny Place, an assisted living facility. They could choose from a variety of job functions, including those in cafeteria, radiology, housekeeping and dietary. 

Kathy Viergutz, business liaison at Howard Young, oversees their placement there.

Mary Deditz spoke how excited her daughter was when she phoned her to say she had been accepted for her first rotation at One Penny Place. 

Since her training, Nicole “has grown in maturity,” and her vocabulary and speech have “blossomed,” she added.

Near the end of the school year, the interns start to seek permanent employment with the help of Headwaters.

“It’s a real good program,” added John Yost, an employment specialist with Headwaters. He visits potential employers, presents the program and the interns’ skills, knowledge and willingness to work.

Last year’s eight graduates are still employed with jobs at Howard Young, Ascension St. Mary’s Hospital in Rhinelander, Milestone in Woodruff and Kwik Trip in Arbor Vitae. All are paid the prevailing wage for their jobs, which have to be at least 16 hours a week. In return, employers get dedicated employees and a tax break from the federal government, he said.

He admits it can be difficult to find employers, partly because a lot of the available work in the North Woods is seasonal in nature.

But for those who do hire Project SEARCH graduates, the reward is seeing young people achieve their dream of greater independence.