Ava Anderson sits outside her home in Gladstone. Anderson was hired in the distribution department of Children's Mercy Hospital after she completed the Project SEARCH internship program through North Kansas City Schools.
Ava Anderson sits outside her home in Gladstone. Anderson was hired in the distribution department of Children's Mercy Hospital after she completed the Project SEARCH internship program through North Kansas City Schools. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

At first, Ava Anderson’s supervisor underestimated her. 

As an unpaid intern working in the distribution department at Children’s Mercy Hospital through a program for students with disabilities, she initially received basic tasks such as sanitizing, packing totes, sweeping and checking expiration dates. 

But as she prepared to move on to a new rotation of her program, a coworker recognized her initiative and advocated for her to be hired. He thought she deserved consideration “because I don’t just stand there and stare at him for things to do,” Anderson said. 

After a rotation in the dining room wasn’t a good fit — Anderson, who has autism, said there was too much going on and it made her anxious — she returned to distribution.

“That’s when I brought up that I can do a lot more things,” Anderson said. “It’s just sometimes I can become just really shy and quiet and stuff.”

Her supervisors said they could accommodate her shyness, and they began to train her in more complex tasks like picking orders. 

After her internship, the department hired her full-time.

“I enjoy my job,” Anderson said. “Everyone’s just willing to help each other even though I’ve already had a few issues come up. But also my supervisors are willing to help me with different situations and also willing to listen to me when I have a concern.”

Anderson is one of the many success stories of Project SEARCH, a collaboration among North Kansas City Schools, employers such as Children’s Mercy, and service providers Vocational Rehabilitation Services, Goodwill and Center for Human Services. 

The program serves students with disabilities who have completed their graduation requirements and return as fifth-year seniors to gain workplace experience in a supportive environment. 

It’s part of a network of programs the district offers to help students with disabilities transition into successful employment after high school. 

Project Search students have close to a 95% employment rate — compared to less than 20% of people with disabilities nationwide, said Rita Richards, a Project SEARCH instructor for North Kansas City Schools. Students are counted as employed after they work 16 hours per week for at least 90 days. 

To enroll in Project Search, students must already have a level of independence and skills that would make them likely to succeed in a workplace with support. 

“I just am proud of our school district for having the progression of services from ninth (grade) on up to help students figure out their transition and what they want to do and have opportunities available,” Richards said.

Why students with disabilities need extra support 

Getting a job is “relatively easy for some of our students,” said Alisha Matthews, the transition facilitator for the district who works with students on career readiness. “But I think it’s the keeping the job and holding a job that is very difficult.”

Matthews said students outside North Kansas City’s programs can tend to move from job to job, sometimes not understanding that missing a shift can cause their employers to leave them off the schedule, for example. 

In North Kansas City high schools, students with disabilities begin working on career development their freshman year, learning soft skills and expectations that might not be intuitive, including professional dress, personal hygiene and following directions.

The work experience course continues through senior year and uses a curriculum known as Practical Assessment Exploration System, or PAES. It includes assessments that help reveal what supports students need and what careers could play to their strengths. 

Those lessons continue in the more advanced programs that also offer direct practical experience, sometimes including multiple rotations that give students a variety of experiences so they can find a good fit. 

In the upper levels of the work experience course, juniors and seniors do hands-on work in local businesses with supervision from district teachers or staff. 

A yearlong program, NKC Hospital Academy, works through a partnership with North Kansas City Hospital to provide vocational skills training. 

Qualified students can also participate in Project SEARCH after their senior year. It includes three 10-week rotations of an unpaid internship and some classroom instruction.

Work sites have included Children’s Mercy, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Dentistry, Ronald McDonald House, Bright Horizons child care and Truman Medical Center, though the latter two withdrew due to the pandemic and haven’t yet returned, Richards said.

Children’s Mercy has worked with Project SEARCH for a decade, typically hosting four to 10 North Kansas City students as interns each year, said Angela Bright, a hospital employee who serves as a program liaison. 

Some students are such strong employees that they get jobs at the hospital after their internships end, she said, including several hired by food services and a student from the most recent class who now works in the mail room.  

“It also benefits the employer because they get to see what special needs students can do and are capable of.”

Rita richards, project search instructor

Bright is the program manager for Project RISE (Reaching for Independent Successful Employment), a Children’s Mercy program that began 14 years ago as the hospital realized patients with chronic health issues or disabilities might struggle to find jobs as adults. 

Bright said a job doesn’t just bring a paycheck, but also provides a sense of belonging and purpose and improves physical and mental health.

“Due to the population that we’re supporting in this, a lot of these individuals have been patients or at some point (were) served at Children’s Mercy,” Bright said, meaning they get a “full circle experience,” add diversity to the workforce and offer a valuable perspective. 

In Project SEARCH, Richards said, students meet in a classroom at their job site to reinforce that they are entering the professional world. They’re expected to call in personally if they need to miss a day, rather than having their parents call like most high school students. 

But the program also ensures they have the resources and support necessary to succeed.

That can include logistical basics like offering school transportation to the site or providing a map of the hospital they’ll be working in so they don’t get lost. 

Anderson said support navigating the public transit system to get to work has been particularly helpful now that she’s a graduate. 

The various North Kansas City programs also include help talking to supervisors about challenges that come up, accommodations needed, or how a disability might affect work life. 

They sometimes provide physical accommodations such as communication devices, but also help in explaining other challenges to employers, for example if they get anxious in crowds. 

If a graduate of Project SEARCH is hired as a regular employee, Ability KC continues to check in monthly for about nine months, Richards said. One of Ability KC’s services is employment support for people with disabilities. 

In one case, an Ability KC skills trainer called a student and learned they had stopped going to work because of harassment, she said.

“She didn’t know how to handle advocating for herself and letting the boss know in that chain of command,” Richards said. The trainer helped facilitate a conversation between the boss and employee. “The situation was rectified, and she kept her job and kept going to work.”

It’s about ‘finding the best way’ to succeed 

Ideal results can be different for each student depending on their goals and needs. 

“Some students do go to sheltered employment … but I think having all these programs and options available has probably decreased that quite a bit,” said Richards. 

Both Richards and Matthews said that in their last six years at North Kansas City schools, they couldn’t remember a student going into sheltered employment, though Richards said she had seen it happen in previous roles she held working with special education in the district.

Sheltered workshops are specifically designed to provide employment for people with disabilities, but they have become controversial because they are allowed to pay less than minimum wage.

North Kansas City graduates have ended up employed in grocery stores, fast food, various hospital departments, child care, Hallmark card distribution and factories. 

Matthews said one graduate even got her “dream job” working in a cookie shop. 

“We set pretty high expectations for our students,” she said. “Most of the time the kids, they perform at or above expectations.”

It’s necessary to be “creative and open minded” while “finding the best way for individuals to work and learn tasks and do them successfully,” said Bright, with Children’s Mercy. “It just might take a little bit more time to figure that out and implement that.”

She said Anderson is a dedicated employee and a good example of how quickly students’ confidence grows as they participate in Project SEARCH.

Richards noted that one of the supervisors who worked with the program said he probably wouldn’t have hired Anderson after a 15-minute interview. 

“But she worked in the department, asked for more work, we saw what she was capable of, and they ended up hiring her and they’re ecstatic,” Richards said. “It also benefits the employer because they get to see what special needs students can do and are capable of.”

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.