Local program aims to teach work skills to interns with developmental disabilities

A number of the participants also are on the Autism spectrum. That requires a unique type of preparation for the workforce.
PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- As he sits surrounded by stacks of laptops, 21-year-old Andre Thach works quietly and methodically, removing the screens from the out-of-service laptops one by one.

Even though the pile of laptops seems never-ending, Thach isn't stressed about the task ahead.

"I like working with computers," he said. "I feel great."

Thach learned how to work with the laptops as part of his internship in the IT department of the School District of Philadelphia's headquarters in Spring Garden.

Taking apart the laptops is how Thach will actually put together his career.

"I'd like working a job," said Thach, who has special needs.

His opportunity for an internship is part of Project Search, which is an international program that teaches work skills to students with developmental disabilities.

The School District of Philadelphia is one of two places in Philadelphia to house the program.

Drexel University houses the other program, with a specific focus on people who have autism. April is Autism Acceptance Month.

"It provides the opportunity for them to gain employment skills by allowing them to participate at internship sites," said Cynthia Santiago, an instructor with Project Search.

Participants in the school district's program are students ages 18-21 who have completed their education in Philadelphia public schools, but need extra help to prepare to join the workforce.

A number of the participants also are on the Autism spectrum. That requires a unique type of preparation for the workforce.

"We do a lot of soft skills that a lot of the times are things that our interns may actually get in fired for," said Santiago.

Examples he says would be interns being taught how to politely intervene in a conversation to speak with their boss or how to appropriately enter the office space of a coworker.

Those types of soft skills in relating to others are important to teach as part of Project Search.

"(We teach them) how to interact with management. How to follow a chain of command," said Danjuma Sellers-Genrette from Community Integrated Services, a partner in Project Search. "Things that seem second nature to most people, but things that often have to be taught to some of our interns."

There are things that 19-year-old Sarah McStay has learned since starting the 30-week program last fall.

"Even if I need help, I can go to my boss," she said while standing adjacent from her cubicle, which has a hand-written highlighter blue and pink sign designating the desk as hers.

McStay's internship is also in at the school district's headquarters.

But the program also offers internships outside of the building at businesses across Philadelphia.

"We have South which is a restaurant," said Santiago. "We have Stockyard, which is another restaurant. We have CVS."

There are 15 intern sites total. The school district partners with the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, Community Integrated Services, and the state Office of Intellectual Disability Services to run Project Search.

Program participants are often referred by administrators like guidance counselors in their high schools.

The participants are then matched up with an internship that fits their needs, interests and abilities. Once they complete the 30-week program, the requirement is that they obtain paying jobs for at least 90 days.

"Not only do they meet the expectations, but they often exceed the expectations," said Santiago.

The idea of Project Search is not only to teach job skills, but to give students with special needs the chance to have independence and prove they are capable.

"They want to do well," said Sellers-Genrette. "They're tired of people underestimating them."

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