Opening Doors: Project SEARCH provides opportunities for disabled workers

Interns in the Project SEARCH program participate in classroom learning as well as hands-on worksite internships at Unity Point-St. Luke's Hospital in Cedar Rapids. CREDIT BRIAN DRAEGER

In the last day of his nine-month internship at UnityPoint-St. Luke’s Hospital, Julius Trammell was optimistic he could land a permanent job in the dietary department.

The 20-year-old from Marion, who performed various tasks such as stripping and making beds, cleaning tables and shredding papers, recently completed a Project SEARCH internship — a partnership between the hospital, The Arc of East Central Iowa and Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services.

The national program that offers young adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities training and employment opportunities started in 2014 at the Cedar Rapids hospital system.

Each year, up to 12 people ages 18-30 are selected to participate in the nine-month program, including three weeks in the classroom and three 10-week unpaid worksite internships. The Cedar Rapids program is the only Project SEARCH in the Corridor, although there are programs across the state, including in Des Moines, Waterloo,
Muscatine, Davenport and Clinton.

Funding for the adult program is provided through various sources, including Mental Health/Disability Services of the East Central Region, Pre-Vocational Services/Medicaid, and Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services (IVRS). There is no charge to the employer to participate in the program.

In her fifth year as Project SEARCH instructor through The Arc, Stephanie Beary says the program opens doors for those with a wide range of disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome, and depression.

“People tend to fall through the cracks. They get support in high school and then are on their own,” she said. “We teach them how to be a team player and good coworker. Every job is important.”


Born with spina bifida, Jarrett Moehlman, 21, of Lisbon, finished his Project SEARCH internship working in the hospital’s Fit Zone, where he cleaned equipment, vacuumed and performed desk duties.

After leaving Kirkwood Community College after the fall semester in 2019, he found it challenging to find stable employment due to limited work experience.

Project SEARCH has given him the skills and confidence to move forward with his job search.

“I like being around people and being busy with a variety of tasks,” he said as he wiped down exercise equipment from his wheelchair.

He hopes his experience will help him find employment at a sports fitness center.

Kathy Patrick, a Project SEARCH skills trainer/job coach for three years through The Arc of Eastern Iowa, says the program “is more than learning how to wipe down rails.” It teaches life skills and social interactions that are often taken for granted.

“They are unaware of what’s expected of them,” she said. “We teach them basic skills like how to have a conversation and what’s appropriate and inappropriate. I love being able to teach them. I love the look on their face when they get it — that aha moment.”

The amount of supervision depends on the intern. Although they start with one-on-one assistance, the goal is to gain more independence and just have spot checks a couple of times a day. The same goes for post-internship employment, where they will train with a job coach.

“We want them to know they will be OK on their own,” she said.

Katie Sievert, UnityPoint Health–St. Luke’s Hospital HR business partner who is the business liaison for Project SEARCH, agrees that there is a substantial increase in the interns’ maturity, independence and confidence from the start to completion of the nine-month program.

“Many of them come in, and they’re really shy, and they’re pretty uncertain, and kind of quiet sometimes,” she said. “By the end, we get a chance to see their personality shine. They know now how to interact with others, and they develop strong friendships.

“They get a good sense of what it’s like to be an employee. Not just learning the task, but what it’s like to interact with coworkers,” she added. “They start to feel confident that they can do simple things, or seemingly simple things, like participating in department activities such as a potluck — how do I sign up or what do I bring? It’s really those things about becoming an adult in the workplace.”

Untapped workforce

The program allows St. Luke’s to tap into an underutilized part of the workforce, especially as labor shortages continue to affect businesses and the economy.

“Like many employers, we have open positions to fill,” Sievert said. “We have been able to employ some of these individuals, and those who  don’t take a position with us can find other employment within the community.”

The benefits are spread between the interns and their coaches and supervisors.

“The interns bring so much joy to our teams,” Sievert said. “They come with a lot of enthusiasm; it’s really fun to see people who are excited to come in. This is a new experience for them, and they truly become part of our team.”

Other potential employers should keep an open mind to the possibilities of hiring people with disabilities, Project SEARCH leaders said.

“These are people who are willing to work; they are reliable and dependable,” Beary said. “They have been underestimated their whole lives. We treat them like adults with tough love. We correct bad behavior, letting it go will not do them any favors.”

Sievert agrees that employers may be missing out due to preconceived notions.

“Many individuals with disabilities are often able to become very productive and valuable employees who will be very dedicated to them,” she said. “They just need some simple accommodations or modifications to the way the work is performed.

“It’s easy to see an individual’s disability and maybe think of the limitations first,” she added. “But I think the challenge for all employers is really to see the possibilities of what that person can achieve given just a little bit of support, and how they can really become a valuable member of their workforce.” s

Project SEARCH

Call: The Arc at (319) 365-0487 for more information

Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services

Cedar Rapids Area Office

Serving Benton, Jones and Linn counties
4444 First Ave. NE, Ste. 436
Cedar Rapids, IA 52402
(319) 294-9308

Iowa City Area Office

Serving Cedar, Iowa, Johnson and Washington counties
1700 South First Ave., Ste. 11-A Eastdale Plaza
Iowa City, IA 52240
(319) 354-4766