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THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

BISD, Dow team up for SEARCH program to help intellectually disabled students land good jobs

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

“Thanks to the SEARCH program I was able to get the job of my dreams…”

“Never give up on your dreams because tomorrow may be too late…”

These excerpts are from an email sent by a former student to Paige Tracy, an assistant instructor in Project SEARCH, a program that combines classroom education with unpaid internships in an effort to prepare high school students with intellectual disabilities for the job market.

The unique program is a partnership between Brazosport ISD, which supplies instruction, and Dow Chemical Co., which supplies on-the-job training.

If you want some good news, you have come to the right place. Project SEARCH is a jobs program that really works. It allows young people with disabilities to dream.

In only its second year here, the program already has produced results. In year one, five of six interns landed full-time jobs. One participant moved out of state.

So far this year, two of nine are no longer unpaid interns. They are paid employees of Dow contractors.

Tim Wolfe, the student who wrote the email, is one of this year’s graduates who has already landed a paid job. He is working for Railserve, a Dow contractor specializing in safely moving railcars inside Dow plants. Tim is a safety technician.

This year’s other students/interns have high hopes of joining Tim in the paid workforce. They are applying and interviewing for jobs.

“I learned how to do data entry,” said Lazaro Medrano. “After Project SEARCH graduation, I’m going to celebrate, then get a job.”

“I learned how to type and many other skills so that I can get a job on my own,” said Elisa Gaona.

Abigail Rimato has ambitions, too. “While I’ve been at Project SEARCH, I got my Food Handler’s Certificate and can work at my favorite restaurant,” she said. “After graduation, I want to get a job working with animals or work as a hostess at a restaurant.”

The special education students in Project SEARCH had all completed high school academic requirements at either Brazosport or Brazoswood High Schools but weren’t officially considered graduates until they completed Project SEARCH and received their diplomas at graduation ceremonies on May 21. They had been selected for the program based on their desire to hold full-time jobs.

During the past school year, the program’s participants showed up at the Dow Diamond Center in Lake Jackson bright and early. They started with classroom time. They worked on job skills, such as typing, math and budgeting. They also learned about personal finance.

Then they were transported to various job sites for on-the-job training. During the school year, the unpaid interns were rotated three times in order to expose them to different departments.

Coordinating all this are John Salzman, who has years of experience in special education, and Tracy, his assistant, who both work for BISD. Stacy Adetunji works for SCI Employment Services.

They play many roles. They are teachers, counselors, jobs coaches, skills trainers and chauffeurs.

In two company cars provided by Dow, they drive the interns to and from job sites throughout our area. On the day I visited the students at the Dow Diamond Center, Adetunji had taken a student for a job interview.

Salzman is justifiably proud of the program and his graduates.

“It is amazing to see these students just grow,” he said. “They learn to speak up for themselves and be their own advocates. They learn to say ‘this is what I can and need to do.’”

Interviewed a few days before graduation ceremonies, Salzman predicted the end of the school year would be an emotional time for the interns, the parents and Salzman, Adetunji and Tracy.

“An investment tip,” says Salzman, “buy a lot of Kleenex.”

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com)