By Myra Holmes
Like most parents, Bruce and Kimberlee Jost, pictured right, members of Ebenfeld MB Church, Hillsboro, Kansas, have simple dreams beyond high school for their two daughters, Ella and Talia: to live independently, have meaningful work, contribute to their community and pursue their passions.
But Ella, 14, has Down Syndrome. In a town of fewer than 3,000 in a rural area, even these simple dreams for her seemed out of reach. Marion County offers no supported living, no school-to-work transition program and few job opportunities. The couple wondered whether they would have to relocate or give up their own dreams in order to provide a future for Ella.
“It was pretty bleak,” Bruce says.
Program offers hope
Enter Project SEARCH, a business-led, school-to-work program for young adults with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities. A new Project SEARCH site at Tabor College, the Mennonite Brethren-owned school in Hillsboro, promises to help young adults with disabilities, the Hillsboro community and area churches reach their full potential.
For the Josts, who introduced Project SEARCH to the community, the partnership means Ella will have options when she finishes high school in a few years. “We had no hope, and that has changed,” says Kimberlee.
Project SEARCH comes to Marion County through a partnership between Marion County Special Education Cooperative and Tabor. The first four interns will begin their assignments next month: Tanner Jasper and Alexandria Larson of Hillsboro, Kan.; and Christopher Anderson and Ryan Hutton of Newton, Kan. The primary goal of the program is competitive employment for these young adults. Accordingly, interns will participate in three work internships at Tabor over the course of a scholastic year.
That alone provides significant hope for disabled young adults and their families. Rob Haude, chair of the Project SEARCH advisory committee, says real work at competitive wages provides the means to live independently and the fulfillment of contributing to and being valued in the eyes of the community.
Program teaches job skills, “soft skills”
As the largest employer in the county, Tabor is an ideal business partner. Daneen Landis, Tabor’s liaison for the Marion County program, says already seven departments of the college have identified work opportunities for the interns. Assignments might include wiping tables in the cafeteria, organizing sports gear, cleaning with the maintenance crew, stuffing envelopes for alumni relations or a variety of similar tasks.
Project SEARCH aims to enrich the lives of interns beyond job skills as well. Work assignments are accompanied by classroom instruction in a variety of “soft skills”: communication, budgeting, computer skills and the like. Haude, who has a decade of experience as a special education teacher and who will lead this classroom instruction, says such skills are necessary to job success, but those with intellectual or developmental disabilities often struggle with them.
The program at Tabor will also offer interns both formal and informal ways to build relationships and connections. Interns will be paired with education students for mentoring that is unique to Tabor’s program. Haude points out that those with disabilities often don’t have the kind of mentoring relationships that everyone craves. “To be able to provide them with that is priceless,” he says.
In addition, mentors will be encouraged to go with interns to community events such as ball games, concerts or plays to begin to form informal connections within the community—connections that will build a support system and might lead to a job.
Enriching interns, community
While Project SEARCH makes no claim to be a Christian program, faith is an integral part of any full life, and the hope is that Tabor’s interns will grow spiritually as well. The program doesn’t formally include faith formation; interns won’t take Bible classes, for example. But Tabor is a Christ-centered community, and faith infuses life on campus in countless informal ways.
Landis says that interns will undoubtedly encounter faith through conversations and relationships and will experience the love of Christ extended to them and modeled for them. “Tabor people are special,” she says. “This campus cares about the people who walk it day in and day out, and we’re really focused on that whole idea of preparing people for learning, work and service outside of Tabor.”
As the Project SEARCH interns complete the program and pursue jobs and a full life, the community will be enriched as well. Haude points out that all people are created in God’s image. “When we are living fully in God’s image, our families and communities and churches will benefit,” says Haude.
Too often, he says, stereotypes hinder businesses from hiring those with disabilities. As Tabor provides a role model and area businesses begin to hire those who complete the Project SEARCH program, he expects those stereotypes will begin to break down. “[The Project SEARCH graduates] will only enrich our communities, and businesses will see that their business is enhanced by these individuals,” he says.
Area churches, too, will move toward full ministry potential as Project SEARCH provides new encouragement and resources to reach out to those with disabilities. Marion County is home to four MB churches: Hillsboro MB Church, Parkview MB Church and Ebenfeld MB Church in Hillsboro and Good News Christian Fellowship in Marion.
Haude believes that churches want to serve but often don’t know where to begin. “I hope and pray that this program might be a way that churches can become aware of how to serve these individuals,” he says. “I look forward to that happening.” He says that Project SEARCH organizers have met with members of three area ministerial alliances, who have expressed enthusiastic support and committed to pray.
Leading the way
Kimberlee Jost, who is not only the parent of a special-needs daughter but also serves on the Project SEARCH steering committee, dreams that Mennonite Brethren business owners in the area would lead the way in hiring those who’ve completed the program. Already, she’s been pleased with the openness of the business owners with whom she’s had conversations. Beyond that, she sees endless ways church members might be involved—as generous givers, job coaches, support for families or connections for interns. “The future is wide open,” she says.
From his perspective as a parent, Bruce Jost says that Project SEARCH at Tabor is all about the kind of abundant life that Christ promised his followers. “This is a way that others—Christians, non-Christians, urban churches, rural churches—can see that abundant life is possible for those with special needs.”
“And,” Kimberlee adds, “that possibly they will lead the way.”
Photo: Rob Haude, left, chairs the Project SEARCH advisory committee at Tabor College. He is pictured with Ryan Hutton, one of the first four interns selected to be part of hte program in its inaugural year. “The goal of Project SEARCH is to help people with disabilities gain employment, says Haude. “These are excellent young people with bright futures, and we’re excited to see all that they will accomplish through the program.” Photo credit: Tabor College