A Story of Faith: Transforming Lives Through Employment Opportunities for Individuals with Disabilities

Meet Faith, a 20-year-old from Mobile, AL, and recent graduate of Project SEARCH, a one-year transitional program for high school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The program pairs recent high school grads with job coaches for professional development so they can find a job after they’re finished with school. VOA Southeast has worked closely with Project SEARCH for the past several years as a partner agency. Given VOA Southeast’s Supported Employment program, which helps adults find jobs, the partnership was a perfect fit. Some of these students will continue to work with the Supported Employment program closely after Project SEARCH graduation, continuing job coaching for as long as they need.

Along with VOA Southeast, Project SEARCH, is partnered alongside several other agencies including the Mobile County Public School System, Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services, Alabama Department of Mental Health, Alabama Department of Education, and PCH Hotels & Resorts.

When Faith first started at Project SEARCH in 2023, she was very shy.

Faith had just graduated from high school in Mobile. Born with a developmental disability, Faith liked her teachers but mostly found school boring. One of her teachers recommended her for Project SEARCH.

Since graduating from the program, Faith secured a job at Dauphin’s, a casual fine dining restaurant on the 34th Floor of the RSA Trustmark Building with a panoramic view overlooking the city.

Over the last year, Faith has really come out of her shell, says Nikita Vidic, one of the job coaches at Project SEARCH. She made great strides becoming more comfortable with the sort of day-to-day social interactions that are necessary for working in a service job.

Project SEARCH – How it Works

Teachers in the school system recommend qualified students for Project SEARCH during their senior years. The program mirrors the Mobile Public School system’s academic calendar. Over the course of nine months, program interns do nine-week rotations in different departments at the Riverview Plaza and the Battle House Renaissance Hotels in downtown Mobile.

“They might work in housekeeping for one rotation, they might work catering banquets or work security for the next,” says Anthony Lewis, VOA Southeast’s Director of Supported Employment. “And the hotel has hired some individuals to work there for permanent employment [afterwards] as well.”

On top of discovering what sorts of jobs they enjoy and excel at, interns work with job coaches at the start of each day and in between rotations to develop skills and solve problems. They learn how to apply for jobs, how to prepare for interviews, how to navigate public transit, and how to deal with practical challenges that arise during their day-to-day tasks.

“It’s fun,” Faith said about Project SEARCH. “You learn a lot of stuff and you meet new people.” Faith says the program helped her develop interview skills, helped her with her vocabulary, taught her how to greet people at work, and how to do basic budgeting. And through her rotations at the hotel, Faith learned she was drawn toward working in restaurants.

“First I worked in the front of the house,” she said. “I had to clean tables, pick up dirty tables, take the dishes in the back, and reset the tables. And in one of the restaurants I had to serve the customers.”

The interns often particularly like working banquets at the Riverview Hotel, said Tandra Matthews, one of the job coaches at Project SEARCH, because of the celebrities who stop there on their way through town, including T-Pain, cast members from Stranger Things, and Kalen DeBoer, University of Alabama’s new football coach.

Through Project SEARCH, individuals with disabilities who are capable of working get job training to help them acclimate to the working world and establish good habits of independence, self-reliance, and community involvement that will last with them through life.

One Project SEARCH intern even went on to college!

Individualized Attention from Job Coaches

Each intern at Project SEARCH — and each participant in VOA Southeast’s broader Supported Employment Program — is paired with a job coach. These coaches teach practical skills, but they also function as a general social worker and advocate for their clients as they navigate the process of applying for — and then having — a job.

“This program [Project SEARCH] is very nurturing,” said Matthews. “From day 1 there’s a team that follows each person and offers individualized help. Although there are 10+ students, everything is addressed at the individual level instead of being cookie cutter.“

“We cater to them individually, we learn their different personality types, and learn what might work for them, what doesn’t work for them,” said Nikita Vidic.

“You’re like a social worker at times,” says Lewis. “You’re a resource for those individuals. If you don’t know [how to fix something], you try to find out and connect your clients with the right people. Your main goal ultimately is to find them employment, but at times you’re actually a resource for them for housing, for paying bills, or for accessing public services. It all goes hand in hand.”

For instance, a job coach can reach out to an employer to explain why certain allowances need to be made for one of their clients – maybe they can’t pass a standard IQ test that’s part of the application; maybe they need access to particular tools or facilities in order to fulfill their obligations.

Once a client has been placed at a job, coaches are often very hands-on, acting as an extra level of training and support at the job site each day. After a while, their role becomes more supervisory, watching to make sure that their clients are getting along and intervening only if needed to prevent any problems.

Over time, the coach’s involvement with their client usually fades into the background, and after 90 days at the new job their official case closes. But the coaches remain a resource and an intermediary should a problem arise at the job, or if their client wants to seek a promotion or transfer to a different position.  

“Even if it’s two years later, we’re still available to them,” said Vidic. “Sometimes it’s just redirecting and getting them back on course.”

On top of working with their clients, job coaches also work with employers to help them better understand how to communicate with individuals who often have difficulty expressing themselves.

“A lot of times we’re not job coaching the individual, we’re sometimes job coaching the people they’re working for. Teaching them how to deal with them and how to talk with them,” said Lewis.

Over the years, VOA Southeast’s Supported Employment program has established many relationships with employers throughout the Mobile area. Their clients frequently get jobs in the Mobile Public School system, at restaurants, fast food chains, grocery stores, movie theaters, warehouses, retail chains, or hotels. This year, Walgreens partnered with Project SEARCH to add a rotation to the schedule during which interns work at the drugstore.

“We’ve gotten to the point where [businesses] call me and say ‘Hey, do you have anybody we could hire?’,” said Lewis. He notes that an additional benefit of the program is that it opens employers’ minds to working with adults with developmental disabilities that they might not have otherwise considered for job openings.

Eligibility for VOA Southeast’s Supported Employment program is determined by the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services’ (ADRS) Vocational Rehabilitation Service. They refer candidates to VOA Southeast, which then pairs them with job coaches and other job development professionals. While Project SEARCH focuses on new high school graduates with intellectual disabilities, VOA Southeast job counselors work with a number of different populations, including recently homeless veterans in VOA Southeast’s permanent and transitional housing programs and people with physical disabilities who are trying to find jobs that can accommodate them.

Changing Lives and Building Community

Working is an important part of anyone’s life. But getting a job can have a particularly transformative effect on the lives of individuals in these programs. It gives them direction and purpose and a sense of independence. It teaches them about the world and develops their abilities to interact with others. It integrates them into a community to prevent them from becoming isolated.

“A lot of times, when these students graduate from high school they just go home,” said Lewis. Living with their parents without maintaining broader connections through school or employment, it’s easy for adults with disabilities to become isolated from their communities or reliant on parents who are growing older and won’t always be around to take care of them.

“Employment makes individuals feel worthy of something,” says Angelique Frederick, VOA Southeast’s Coordinator of Day Services for people with developmental disabilities. It’s not just about maximizing their independence – it’s also about cultivating a sense of accomplishment and community investment. “They’re not just being given something, they’re earning something. They can say, ‘This is my money that I earned.’”

“It’s a proud moment when an intern gets hired,” said Matthews. “You feel like a parent who’s watching their child excel and exceed.”

“When Faith got hired, I almost cried,” said Vidic. “It’s like, oh my god, she almost feels like my daughter.”

Anthony Lewis, who worked with the very first batch of Project SEARCH interns as a job coach over a decade ago before he eventually became Director of Supported Employment, said he still loves seeing the look of pride on his clients’ faces when they make their first paycheck.

“The rewarding part of it is seeing those individuals feel like a part of something, seeing them become part of the community,” said Lewis. “When they’re out there, they’re building relationships. They go to the Christmas party, they go to the Thanksgiving dinners. And it’s a joy to see that on their faces.”

Support VOA Southeast’s Supported Employment Services

Working with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities is a vocation, says Lewis. “I tell people, people with intellectual disabilities are God’s angels. I’ve seen too much miracle stuff, where things just worked out in their favor. That’s nothing but God.”

Since 1980, VOA Southeast has been answering God’s call to transform lives by reaching and uplifting our communities’ most vulnerable. Today, we positively impact the lives of over 47,000 people each year. By emphasizing independence, personal choice, and productive employment, VOA Southeast enriches the lives of hundreds of people with developmental and intellectual disabilities in Georgia and Alabama.

We rely on your support to make these programs a reality. Your contributions are what enable us to continue our work. Please consider donating today. Every contribution makes a difference.

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