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Program to Give Springfield District 186 Students with Disabilities On-The-Job Training

New Members

A nationally known program proven successful at helping young people with disabilities gain on-the-job experience so they can land jobs with market pay after high school will begin this summer in Springfield through a partnership between Springfield Public Schools District 186, Memorial Health System and Sparc.

“I’m more excited about this project than any venture I professionally have been a part of,” said Meg Thurman, director of student support services at District 186. “I truly believe this project can change the face and the heart of Springfield.”

For the first year of the partnership, Memorial Health System will be the host site for 10 to 14 district students in nine-month, full-time internships from August 2020 to May 2021 at Memorial Medical Center and other health system affiliates in the capital city as part of its role in the partnership, called Memorial Health Project Search.

District 186 students in their late teens through age 21 who have intellectual or developmental disabilities will spend their entire final year as students at three different unpaid internship sites where they will work among people without disabilities.

The students will learn job skills and work independently, with guidance and encouragement from a District 186 teacher, two Sparc job coaches and numerous Memorial supervisors.

Internship positions for students could expose them to a range of experiences based on their strengths, including data entry and other work in offices, food service and laundry, and stocking of supplies in clerical and patient-care departments, Thurman said.

Students also will receive assistance in developing a resume and applying for jobs.

The Project Search teacher will be funded by reallocating resources within the school district. The job coaches will be paid by Sparc with funds from an annual contract of $80,000 to $90,000 with the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Division of Rehabilitation Services.

Start-up costs for the first year of what is hoped to be a long-term program are being offset by a $16,000 grant from the Springfield Public Schools Foundation with funds donated by the Donnelly Family.

An informational meeting on the program will be held for the public at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 24, in the M.G. Nelson Family Auditorium at the Memorial Center for Learning and Innovation, 228 W. Miller St., Springfield. The meeting will last 60 to 90 minutes.

More information about the program also is available by contacting District 186 administrator Amelia Zibutis at 217-525-3363 or

The program is modeled after the Project Search program that began in 1996 at Cincinnati Hospital Medical Center. Project Search now operates at 617 sites in 48 states and 10 other countries.

Springfield will be the first Project Search site in central and southern Illinois. There are eight other sites in Illinois – mostly at health-care facilities in Bolingbrook, Brookfield, DeKalb, Geneva, LaGrange, Lincolnshire, Rockford and Winfield. A site in Woodstock will be added this summer.

By giving students a chance to develop a work history and marketable work skills, Project Search has proven that “total immersion in a business setting” can help students overcome employers’ fears and biases about people with disabilities, live more fulfilled lives and become productive, taxpaying members of society, Thurman said.

In part because of institutional barriers, only 28% of Americans and 29% of Illinoisans with cognitive disabilities between ages 21 and 64 are employed, according to 2017 Census data.

Those dismal employment rates compare with employment rates of 67% to 75% percent for recent Project Search graduates. Employment for Project Search grads is classified as at least 16 hours of work each week in “integrated” settings alongside co-workers with and without disabilities and at pay rates at or above minimum wage.

“Project Search has the highest competitive employment rate for any transitional employment program,” Thurman said. “This can change the trajectory of a student’s life. Students are absolutely capable of learning a job, when taught. I’m thrilled to be a part of this.”

Project Search founder and co-director Erin Riehle said, “We can’t wait to work with Memorial Health System to demonstrate that young people with disabilities from all parts of Illinois can learn competitive work skills that lead to meaningful employment.”

District 186 spearheaded development of the program to improve transition services offered to its students as they approach the end of eligibility for special-education services at age 22, Thurman said.
The district approached Memorial Health System about the possibility of serving as the Project Search host site, she said. The district has worked with Memorial Health System through the Memorial Choice program, which offers district employees visits to Memorial primary care, ExpressCare clinics and the virtual care portal MemorialNow with no co-pay.

Memorial is glad to assist with Project Search as part of the Springfield-based health system’s mission “to improve the health of the people and communities we serve,” said Bob Scott, MHS senior vice president and chief human resources officer.

“We really want to impact that community and connect with a vulnerable group in our community that we can ‘help up,’” he said.

Project Search students will improve diversity in Memorial’s workforce and broaden perspectives for all employees, Scott said.

 “Having those students in our environment and seeing their capability and seeing how they are able to accomplish within their limitations will have a bigger effect on us than we have on them,” he said.

Memorial may be interested in hiring Project Search students as well, Scott said.  “I have openings,” he said. “If they can fill a job, I’m happy to hire them.”

Thurman said she would like to see Springfield’s Project Search program expand eventually to involve more employers and serve more students.

Providing job coaches for high school students will be exciting new territory for Sparc, which traditionally has provided employment-related services only to adults after high school, Sparc chief operating officer Ryan Dowd said.

He said Project Search students “will be work-ready for Memorial or whoever would need their skills. The earlier they’re exposed to work opportunities, it only benefits them. All of this is good for the students and for Springfield.”

The program could open doors for other local job seekers with disabilities, Dowd said.

“The people we work with are very employable,” he said. “They love going to work. We always say everybody’s good at something. Our job is to find out what that is.”

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