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For any student to transition into the workforce, internships play a vital role. However, finding the right internship experience can be tough, especially for those with special needs.

Project SEARCH, an international program, provides internship opportunities and life skills to students with special needs where employment is the program’s number-one goal.

The program first started at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 1996 and arrived at the Columbus Community Hospital in 2011. For the program, the hospital partnered with Nebraska Vocational Rehabilitation, Columbus Public Schools and the Educational Service Unit 7.

“It’s a great opportunity for kids to get that chance to work on some skills before they enter the workforce,” said Melinda Allen, education coordinator at  Columbus Community Hospital.

The program is open to students older than 18 who are in their last year of high school.

Throughout the program,  interns undergo four rotations in one academic year and are trained as regular employees at the hospital. Each rotation allows interns to work in different departments completing different types of jobs.

The hospital has had interns work in its supply and distribution department, housekeeping department, nutritious services and childcare department.

Each intern is placed in jobs based on their interests and is then paired with a job coach from that department.

Barbara Olnes, a job coach at the Columbus Community Hospital, loves watching  interns learn and progress throughout the year while seeing their personalities grow. Olnes described this experience as a blessing.

Since all of the interns have different needs, one of the biggest challenges as a job coach is making sure that all  interns’ needs are met, Olnes said.

Aside from the working opportunity, the interns start each day in classroom sessions led by Mark Staroscik, the vocational coordinator for Columbus Public Schools. During these 30 minutes sessions, the interns are taught skills like job searching and interviews.

The program receives an average of four to six students a year. Thanks to the partnership with the ESU 7, the program receives numerous interns from out-of-town such as Osceola and David City.

The out-of-town interns commute either through their schools or their parents.

Allen described the program as a “win-win situation” because at the end of the program, some of the interns continue working for the hospital as full-time staff or become an on-call employee. As for the students that leave the program, they are still able to take with them the skills they’ve learned throughout the program and apply them to different job opportunities.

One of the biggest improvement in the interns is their growth in confidence to be in a workplace environment, Allen said.

Most students that first enter this program tend to be shy so it is tough for them to greet someone or to even ask for help, hence, the program allows the interns to grow out of their shells.

The hospital reaches out to local businesses to be on its advisory council and are invited in to speak with the interns. By doing so, the interns gain further knowledge on how different businesses treat policies and procedures.

“For the students to have this many people and adults invested in them to do well, it is just amazing,” Staroscik said.

The program is evaluated throughout the year. Each department rates the interns’ performances and vice versa.

So far, the program hasn't encountered any issues from the departments or the interns. More often than not, the interns are excited with the experience and skills that they’ve learned, Allen said.

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