Southern California

Program Gives LA Students With Disabilities Path to Careers

California ranks 35th in the nation when it comes to employing people with disabilities, but a unique partnership here in Southern California is working to change that, providing young people the skills they need to enter the workforce and stay there.

Twenty-one-year-old Eden Rapp has Down Syndrome, but she is doing a job she loves, working at Kaiser Permanente South Bay Medical Center as an intern with Project Search.

The 30-week program is divided into three 10 week rotations, giving young people with disabilities the opportunity to explore various entry level jobs, from food services to administration and materials management.

"My favorite part of this rotation is being able to work at my tasks and being able to get it done," Rapp says.

"Just as a worker, my goodness, she is the fastest worker I've ever seen," says Gina Jones, nurse manager of labor and delivery at the hospital.

"She really does a great job and just always wants to do her best, always wants to do it right, asks questions, and just has an energy that is so nice to be around."

Anthony Schmidt is learning what it takes to work in a stockroom.

"Sometimes I work on expiration dates, sometimes I take stuff out to the compactor," Schmidt explains.

Project Search is a partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nonprofit Best Buddies and businesses like Kaiser Permanente, which are committed to disability inclusion in the workforce.

"Today, more than 80 percent of working age Americans with disabilities do not have employment," says Ozzie Martinez, chief administrative officer at Kaiser Permanente South Bay Medical Center, where Rapp and Schmidt work.

Kaiser has partnered with the National Organization on Disability to create programs that make a difference in the lives of those with disabilities. Project Search is an example of an innovative approach to do just that. Martinez explains the interns rotate through different departments depending on their interests, trying out jobs they think might be a good fit.

In the past 6 years, more than 80 percent of Project Search interns who’ve taken part in the Project Search program at South Bay Medical Center have received full-time jobs with benefits at Kaiser or elsewhere.

Felipe Rosales was actually hired for a full-time job with Kaiser's janitorial staff before he finished his first rotation.

"I tried my best to work hard, and I was so happy I got hired,” Rosales says, beaming with pride. "I’m saving my money to buy my own car."

Memo Guzman was also hired before finishing his internship.

"My dream was to be a custodian since high school," Guzman explains. For him, the best part of having a full time job is getting to help his family. "When I get paid, I sometimes just like to give some money to my mom to help her with anything."

The program also teaches money management and financial skills.

"Memo said he's going to help his family pay for the rent, but before he does it, he's going to talk to the landlord and make sure things get repaired first. So they really understand and learn how the real world works through these programs," says Gavin Mirigliani, assistant principal at LAUSD’s Willenberg Career and Transition Center.

Willenberg offers a four-year vocational program for special needs students after high school; for some students, that last year is spent as a Project Search intern.

The school provides various labs from culinary arts to graphic design where students learn and practice the skills they need for a job in the real world. But learning the so-called "hard skills" is only part of the process.

"We can get students jobs out in the community, but statistics show they can lose that in the first year because they don't have those soft skills," explains Mirigliani. "So that's what we focus in on: their daily living skills, their hygiene skills, how to interact with coworkers."

The school district also works closely with Best Buddies, which partners students with job coaches. "When they graduate at age 22 from Project Search," Mirigliani says, "the Best Buddies job coaches stay with them for life."

But it's not just the young interns who benefit from Project Search. Ozzie Martinez describes a cultural shift at Kaiser as a result.

"These students are an inspiration. They come in, and they’re engaged, they’re excited to learn, and I think ultimately what they’ve done is created environments where our teams have become better," says Martinez. "Their energy and their kindness has provided a culture of caring that’s taken us to a better place."

The nurses Eden Rapp works with describe her evolution from a quiet, meek young woman into a confident, conscientious worker.

"It is a gift for us to see someone we helped develop grow into an individual who can go out and get a job," says Sarah Ceja, NICU nurse manager. "She’s a blessing to have around."

Clinical nurse specialist Nikisha Purnell agrees. "Eden keeps us grounded, which is awesome."

Rapp acknowledges she’s grown and changed so much in just the first 10 weeks of the program.

"They taught me how to be patient. They helped me focus on what’s important, and they’ve taught me how to be a professional."

Together they’re changing the course of their lives, with a work ethic and commitment to the job that inspires everyone around them.

For more information:

Willenberg Career and Transition Center

Project Search

Best Buddies

National Organization on Disability

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