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Michael Hansen will be the first one to say that his career has progressed extensively during his 36-year-long tenure in the healthcare industry.

Beginning as a “floor guy” in the housekeeping department, he worked hard, climbed through the ranks and ultimately found himself as president and CEO of Columbus Community Hospital.

After Hansen arrived at the facility a little more than eight years ago, an international internship program rooted in adult success, Project SEARCH, followed shortly after.

Project SEARCH has the goal of providing students who’ve completed high school graduation requirements with entry-level jobs and life skills training enabling them to transition from school into the workforce. Following completion of the program, which runs annually from August through May in conjunction with the CPS District’s calendar, graduates are better equipped to tackle life’s challenges.

Some even remain working at the hospital. Like Lee, a Project SEARCH graduate who works as a “floor guy” in Columbus Community Hospital’s housekeeping department.

“So we have a lot to talk about that we have in common,” Hansen said with a smile while addressing a crowd of approximately 60 people gathered in a third-floor room during the eighth annual Project Search graduation ceremony.

On May 24, six Columbus area men and women accepted diplomas before their friends, families and mentors; all of whom played an integral role in helping each intern reach a new personal best.

This year’s graduating Project SEARCH class was comprised of Brianna Brockhaus, Columbus; Gabby Diaz-Rodriguez, Columbus; Kendra Kresha, Osceola; Jake Reisdorff, David City; Kara Reisdorff; David City; and Carrie McDonald of David City.

Throughout the program, interns participated in four rotations and were trained – and treated – as regular hospital employees. Each rotation allowed interns to work in different departments completing various services.

In addition to work experience, interns were given career advice, assistance with resumes and applications, as well as tips for having successful job interviews. The program heavily encouraged independence and social interaction, necessary skills for any occupation graduates may tackle in the future.

While interns interacted with many people and saw numerous faces, a great deal of time was spent with Mark Staroscik, Project SEARCH instructor; Melinda Allen, hospital liaison to Project SEARCH; and Barbara Olnes, skills trainer for Project SEARCH.

Their ability to make a difference in the lives of this year’s six graduates – and approximately 40 total over the eight-year course – is made possible through partnerships with Columbus Public Schools, Educational Service Unit 7 and several other entities.

Staroscik sees day-in and day-out how beneficial – and vital – programs like Project SEARCH are to helping adults with disabilities assimilate and fit in with their cohorts in the working world.

“Just the skills they learn and the growth they make through this program is natural, but it’s just huge because they come in and may not have the experiences that somebody else might have in terms of getting jobs, or having the social skills, but by the time they leave they are all ready to go,” he said.

One of the beauties of the program is that curriculum is personalized to each and every student. Which is necessary, he said, because in his eight years with Project SEARCH he’s never encountered students with identical disabilities or learning capacities.

“It really is customized for each student,” he said. “We get together with Melinda Allen, the hospital liaison, and we individualize the program for each student. So like this year, there wasn’t one Project SEARCH curriculum, there were already six when we started.”

Staroscik, who daily spent around three hours instructing Monday through Friday, said that no two days were ever alike. He saw the development and progression, the “ah ha” moments and sometimes, the frustration and struggles. All of those moments came to a head Thursday at graduation.

“There was never a bad day,” he said. “Not a single one in the nine months we’ve been here.”

Leaving the hospital following graduation, Staroscik said he hopes each student builds and grows from this achievement.

His advice?

“Don’t ever forget this feeling,” he told the accomplished six, “This pride you have in yourself.”

Sam Pimper is the news editor for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at sam.pimper@lee.net.

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