Project SEARCH Helps Adults with Disabilities Learn Job Skills

By Matthew Glover | New Castle News

Pennsylvania has only three sites where adults with disabilities can learn marketable work skills and transferable experience.

Lawrence County has one of them.

Alyson Donofrio, Kelly Sumey and Layne Perretta are learning these skills by participating in Project SEARCH at LIFE Lawrence County. The project has been teaching high school students at UPMC Jameson Hospital employment skills since 2014, and for the first time, has been adapted for adults 22 and older.

Donofrio, 24, has rotated through the kitchen, check-in and housekeeping stations since joining the project and said her favorite rotation was working in the kitchen. After the program, the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation will follow her for three months after the program’s completion to help her find a job.

Project SEARCH is a collaboration between LIFE Lawrence County, the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, Vocational & Psychological Services, Lawrence County Mental Health Developmental Services, Cray Youth & Family Services and the West Central Job Partnership.

Sumey, 22, has rotated through activities, kitchen and check-in stations. Activities are her favorite because of the personal interactions she has with the LIFE Lawrence County residents. This aspect of the project has helped her develop interpersonal and networking skills.

Interns are fully immersed in their department by participating in meetings, learning the proper call-off procedure and being treated as the average employee. Interns work in each station for 10 weeks before rotating.

Perretta, 26, has rotated through the check-in, activities and front desk stations. Working at the front desk has also allowed him to use his IT skills to solve technical problems for the staff. Both Perretta and Sumey agreed working on the project has made them more social. Perretta said he could see himself working in IT after graduation, and Sumey in activities, but Donofrio is still considering her options.

Between internship rotations, the interns have a transition week where they are taken to community businesses based on interest and job availability. Interns also receive $625 stipends if they complete 80 percent of the internship.

Interns have mentors in each department and a skills trainer who follows them through all departments. Mentors give interns the knowledge they need to work at each station, and skills trainer Diana Rankin helps them build skills transferable to all jobs.

Eligible applicants must be diagnosed with an intellectual disability, developmental disability or autism spectrum disorder, have a state ID and clearances, be able to work 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and be willing to work at least 16 hours in the community after graduation. Other requirements include being able to communicate effectively, maintain proper hygiene and be comfortable working with senior outpatients.

Applications for the next Project SEARCH rotation must be submitted to Rankin by May 15. The project can take four interns. There will be an assessment day in June before candidates are selected. Orientation and training take place during the first three weeks of the program in August. Interns must also participate in graduation in May 2025.

LIFE Lawrence County allows seniors to live at home but provides transportation if needed to come each day for access to health care, socialization and food.