An alternative on-the-job learning program is teaching students with learning disabilities new ways to excel in the workforce.
Most of them are grabbing at the opportunity with both hands.
Project Search is a joint venture that gives students who struggled at Hastings and Adams Central high schools a chance to learn a trade through several on-the-job training opportunities at Mary Lanning Healthcare.
Now in its third year locally, the nationwide program — which is funded locally through Nebraska Vocational Rehab, a division of the Department of Education — was initially launched in Cincinnati at Children's Hospital in 1996.
The Hastings branch was started by Amy Vetter, a former special education teacher at Hastings High. Vetter serves as instructor of the program, which includes a job coach and training by employees at Mary Lanning. Following universal program guidelines, the local program mirrors Project Search programs already well established in Grand Island and Kearney.
In recognition of October as National Disability Awareness Month, Vetter shared with the Tribune how Project Search helps students having difficulties with traditional learning methods find their confidence through individualized one-on-one on-the-job training opportunities. In addition to classroom training, students spend three 10-week internships learning the ropes in various departments at Mary Lanning.
The training gives students opportunities to learn numerous skills by performing tasks that mirror actual jobs at Mary Lanning and other medical facilities. Departments used in the program include: materials management; pre-op surgery; housekeeping; cardiopulmonary; sub-acute; in-patient nursing; human resources; and switchboard.
To be eligible for Project Search, students must express a desire to be competitively employed, be in their last year of school eligibility, have an individualized education program in place and be actively working in the Nebraska Vocational Rehab program. Following the same calendar year observed by students enrolled in Hastings Public Schools, students begin their rotation each day learning hands-on skills in whichever department they are assigned. Students are first matched in their rotation by Vetter — based on their perceived skill set and interest — but are given input in choosing their final two rotations.
In addition to learning numerous job skills, the program also helps students with basic life skills, including how to budget and other independent living skills. Students who complete the program are equipped to tackle real-world challenges as they enter the workplace.
The results speak for themselves. In the program's first year, all five students were placed in jobs upon completion and continue to hold those jobs today. Last year, three of four completed the program and are now employed in medical field positions. Vetter is optimistic all six students from this year's class will be placed in jobs by school year's end.
"It's all hands-on learning," she said. "They're out submerged into the business here at the hospital, learning right along with the employees here. So there's a continuous learning process for our students and the employees learning to work with them.
"By us being here to help guide them, they don't feel as intimidated to ask a question as they would if they were in a job by themselves. The job coach and I are here to help facilitate between Mary Lanning and the students and teach the students how to communicate and act with other employees."
Shasta Armstrong, 18, of Hastings attended Hastings High before enrolling in Project Search.
She first became interested in the program after attending a tour arranged through the high school. Her current rotation is at the hospital switchboard.
"It's a very good program," she said. "I never would have ever thought of working at a hospital before this. I'm looking at actually applying here right now because they have a position open.
"I feel like they're helping me get ready. They take time to work with you. I didn't feel that way at school."
Nicole Kathman, 18, of Juniata came into the program from Adams Central High School.
Already her future looks brighter because of what she has learned, she said.
"I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do," she said. "They teach you new things about going out into the world and getting a job. I'm a lot more outspoken now."
Austin Hendrick, 18, of Hastings was steered toward Project Search by a job counselor at Hastings High. A former member of the school's marching band, he is looking to attain his high school diploma through participation in the program. He is currently assigned to the materials management department at Mary Lanning.
"I think it's a pretty good match for me," he said. "It'll help me get my feet in the door. I love it down here. It's a lot of fun."
Hendrick said the program's hands-on approach is far more appealing to him than the traditional means of learning offered at traditional high schools.
"I'm a lot happier," he said. "School wasn't exactly how I needed to learn. Here I get to do more hands-on activities and stuff. It's more beneficial for my learning style."
As an aspiring physical therapist, Hendrick is hoping to spend his next rotation in the hospital's rehab center.
"Any way that I can help people, that's pretty much what my main goal is to do," he said. "Being up here has kind of made those feelings even stronger. It just kind of gives you some self pride that you can actually do it."
Clayton Rosno, 20, of Hastings is learning the ropes in the cardiopulmonary and sub-acute departments. The former Hastings High student said that while he probably won't pursue a career in the medical field, he is nevertheless benefiting from the program.
"It helps me get to know people better," he said. "It helps me understand how to behave myself and get along with other people ... to be friendlier."