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Project SEARCH | Cincinnati Children's

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Published on Aug 1, 2017

https://www.cincinnatichildrens.org/s...

Inside one Cincinnati’s top banks, you’ll find new employee Edie Bahlman crunching numbers.

However, Edie’s journey to getting hired at Fifth Third Bank’s central file room is different than most. She has a disability, autism, but that didn’t stop Edie from pursuing her goal of getting a full time job after high school.

“I’ve been using good organizational skills, being part of a team and giving good eye contact,” said Edie Bahlman.

Edie joins a growing list of graduates from a program that started at Cincinnati Children’s called Project SEARCH, the brainchild of Erin Riehle.

“I was the nursing director of the Emergency Department here at Cincinnati Children’s and I happened to look out into the lobby and was struck by the fact that many of the people coming to us as patients were people with disabilities,” said Erin Riehle, Senior Director of Disability Services and Project SEARCH. “Yet, when I checked behind the scenes there weren’t many opportunities for these people to grow up and continue to be involved at Cincinnati Children’s as employees.”

Erin partnered with Susie Rutkowski at Cincinnati Children’s and together they came up with the Project SEARCH curriculum. It focuses on young people with disabilities between the ages of 18 to 22. In their final year of high school, those students leave the classroom and move to Cincinnati Children’s or another host business to intern for the entire school year.

“Many of the young people have had low expectations for them from family members, schools, and we have to change that in a very short period of time,” said Susie Rutkowski, Co-Director of Project SEARCH. “So we are looking at things like grooming and hygiene, communication, problem solving skills, independence and time management.”

Project SEARCH is an intensive 9 month course for a group of 10-12 students that involves a combination of classes, skill assessments, skills training and evaluations from a team including the instructor, managers and skills trainers. Each day begins and ends with an instructor keeping them on track.

“We would do a lot of reflection in Project Search,” said Tina Martin, Project SEARCH Instructor. “Every day, at the end of the day, we would come back after and I would ask them what did you learn about yourself today? What can you take from today and improve tomorrow?”

Today Project SEARCH is beyond the walls of Cincinnati Children’s and has expanded to more than 500 programs across the US and the world.

“Our overall employment rate among all of our programs is 75.5 percent and that makes us one of the best, if not the best transitional programs in the United States,” said Riehle.

“We understood that individuals with disabilities through Project SEARCH is an untapped market. It was an untapped recruitment stream that we could have access to. We could bring them in, train them on the types of jobs we have, and give them the skills needed so that they can transition into permanent employment. We’ve seen great success at Fifth Third and we’ve seen great success in the communities as well,” said Mitch Morgan, Vice President Inclusion and Diversity Manager at Fifth Third Bank.

Also expanding, the variety of jobs. Project SEARCH graduates now work in a range of industry sectors. Cengage, an educational services and publishing company, recently joined the growing list to offer not just training in marketable skills but opportunities for career growth that includes benefits, incentives and retirement options.

“I would love to run all my employees through those classes about budgeting, about money, how to handle difficult situations, that life piece combined with being in a real life work environment is what makes Project SEARCH completely different than anything else I have ever seen and that’s why those folks are able to make that transformation and be successful,” said Mary Ann Gayheart, Executive Director of Human Resources at Cengage.

“A key part of success is that both sides see and learn something new about the other,” said Riehle.

Changing the culture of families and the general perception of people with disabilities is what Project SEARCH is all about. Just ask Edie Bahlman.

“My favorite thing about coming to work every day is getting the work done and being on task,” said Bahlman.

“To change the culture of businesses and organizations, to change the culture of just the general public about the perception of people with disabilities and what they can and can’t do,” says Susie Rutkowski.

Adds Erin Riehle, “I’m awfully proud that because this hospital and Project SEARCH, there are thousands of people with disabilities working around the United States and the world that wouldn’t have been otherwise had it not been for this program.”

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