HIGH POINT — At High Point Regional Health, a handful of high school students are prepping food, reading to children, fetching supplies and resetting rooms for patients.
It’s work many people, including potential employers, might not expect them to be able to do.
These students, who are part of a job training program called Project SEARCH, have pronounced cognitive or physical disabilities. Some have autism. Some are unable to verbally communicate aside from simple responses.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean their skills are not there,” said Ashley Evans, a job coach with Greensboro TEACCH Supported Employment who works with graduates of Project SEARCH. Greensboro TEACCH is a UNC system program that supports people with autism and their families.
The students have the ability to do the work, such as navigating the huge hospital supply warehouse, reading a list of needed items and collecting the proper quantity. Without some help, though, they might not know how to apply for jobs or be able to talk to an employer about why they want a job.
Finding work also serves a greater purpose for the students.
“They want to be productive people in life,” said Charlotte Lesane, another Greensboro TEACCH job coach. “They’re getting a job because they want to be productive just like everybody else.”
Project SEARCH is an international program that started in Cincinnati in 1996. The local classes, one at the hospital in High Point and another at the Friends Homes in Greensboro, are among eight in North Carolina. The local programs started four years ago.
The goal is to get students working at least 16 hours a week in nonseasonal jobs. Job coaches say they also want students to be as independent as possible in whatever jobs they land.
First, though, the students spend a year getting real-world work experience by completing internships and learning job skills.
The challenge for them is not necessarily the work itself. The students tend to need more help with social skills such as greeting people. Lacking those skills “can be a challenge with people accepting them in the environments they’re in,” Evans said.
The students also need help making judgment calls.
“What do you do if you’re in the middle of a job task and it’s time to go to lunch?” asked Brandi Pittman, a Project SEARCH teacher for Guilford County Schools. “Do you finish? Do you go to lunch?”
Project SEARCH offers students an opportunity for a crucial post-high school transition they might otherwise miss.
Through school, students typically get socialization, leisure and mental stimulation. After completing high school, some students suddenly find themselves at home with little or nothing to do.
“Depression is high,” Pittman said.
Pittman recalled one of her previous students, who had graduated from Western when he was 18. Before getting accepted into Project SEARCH, he spent six months at home sitting on the couch, she said.
“He did absolutely nothing,” she said. “He was miserable. He didn’t have friends.”
Having a job helps give the students a sense of purpose. Once they’re earning a paycheck, students can help with bills or buy things. Pittman mentioned a Project SEARCH graduate who likes to treat himself to a manicure after he gets paid.
The students are adults. They typically start Project SEARCH the last year they are eligible for high school, which in North Carolina is before they turn 21.
“You can see the joy that they’ve gotten from saying, ‘Oh I bought it myself,’” Evans said.
With a job, they help provide for the family.
“That’s a huge deal, especially to some of these low-income families,” Evans said.
Having a job and the independence that comes with it also demonstrates to parents what their child can accomplish. So it was a big deal, Evans said, when a student secured a job and did so well customers would ask about him if he wasn’t there.
Pittman described a student who “freaked out” the first couple of times she rode in an elevator. The student was mostly nonverbal, and at first, she wouldn’t even get her own silverware for lunch. She would ask someone to get it for her.
But within a few months, Pittman said, “she was able to go anywhere in the hospital on her own. You could see a huge difference in her confidence.”
When working with potential employers about hiring a person with a disability, the coaches are upfront and honest, Evans said. For example, they don’t try to place someone who is nonverbal in an office job where they would have to answer phones.
Workers with disabilities, particular those who are autistic, thrive on routine, job coaches say. They are less likely to quit for a better job or do just enough to get by.
“Once they have a job and they’re comfortable there, they don’t want things to change,” said Chelsea Hughes, a Greensboro TEACCH job coach.
That loyalty has helped Phil Kosak and his Greensboro-based business, Carolina Fine Snacks.
More than 30 years ago, he was struggling with turnover. He agreed to participate in a job fair for people with disabilities though he had no previous experience with them.
“I was taken back a little bit in the interview process,” Kosak recalled.
He interviewed a man who was “boasting” about his previous job cleaning bathrooms at a Holiday Inn on the third shift. Kosak said he figured if the man enjoyed that job, he would be fine with one at the Greensboro business.
Once hired, the man Kosak described as almost legally blind, severely obese and who had a lot of cognitive disabilities, was “blowing circles” around other employees with far fewer physical challenges.
“He was very happy to be there, and that became contagious as well,” Kosak said.
In response, some employees raised their standards. Others left and Kosak replaced them with people with disabilities.
Within six months, he said, the revolving door of employees closed. Productivity also increased.
“I basically built the jobs around abilities and the world changed for me,” Kosak said.
Today, about half of Kosak’s employees at his two Greensboro factories are people with disabilities in all facets of production and production administration.
Kosak changed, too. When hiring new employees, he said, he spends less time focused on what they can’t do and more time on whether they have the skills he needs. He advises other employers to do the same.
Kosak has also been called on by governors and national boards for employing people with disabilities and recognized for his hiring practices. He calls the attention “a little embarrassing.”