Episode 116 VR Workforce Studio
Reflections from Tom Wood on vocational rehabilitation and Project SEARCH.
VR Workforce Singers: VR Workforce Studio.
Mike Wood: Your adult son is, is waiting downstairs, you know, showered and dressed with his lunch packed, you know…
Rick Sizemore: Wow.
Mike Wood: Saying, “Dad, it’s time to go to work.” It’s, it’s really fantastic.
Jake Hart: Four, three, two, one. VR Workforce Studio, podcasting the sparks that ignite vocational rehabilitation through the inspiring stories of people with disabilities who have gone to work.
Flora Frazier: Working in a field that I understand.
Jake Hart: As well as the professionals who have helped them.
James Hall: A job and a career, you got to look at how life-changing this is.
Jake Hart: And the businesses who have filled their talent pipelines with workers that happen to have disabilities.
Debby Hopkins: To help expand registered apprenticeship.
Jake Hart: These are their stories.
Megan Healy: Because there’s such a great story to tell about people with disabilities.
Jake Hart: Now, here are the hosts of the VR Workforce Studio, Rick Sizemore and Betsy Civilette.
Rick Sizemore: Welcome to episode 116 of the VR Workforce Studio, as we welcome Tom Wood and his family, here to talk about Project SEARCH. Great to have you on the show today, Tom, let’s get started. Tell us how you got involved in Project SEARCH.
Tom Wood: How did I get involved in Project SEARCH? After I graduated high school, I wanted to get a job. My teachers told me about a work-study opportunity at the hospital where I could learn job skills and it sounded like a good opportunity. So, they helped me apply and I got in.
Betsy Civilette: So, what, tell us just a little bit about your high school experience.
Tom Wood: I really liked going to high school. I learned a lot from my teachers. I, and I really liked hanging out at the cafeteria, the food was really good. It was a big change at first from middle school but I figured it out.
Rick Sizemore: Tell us about what, what you learned in Project SEARCH.
Tom Wood: I did a lot of different things. I took out the trash, I washed dishes, I stocked linens, I learned how to change hospital beds, I rolled tubes, and I cleaned the wheelchairs.
Rick Sizemore: Wow that, that sounds exciting. Mike and Kathy, how did you get involved in, in what all was going on in Tom’s life when he chartered this course from high school over to Project SEARCH? What was going on?
Kathy Mathias: Well, before he graduated from Handley, we worked with his IEP team to make some decisions on transitioning from high school to adult life and this was one of the options. So, um you know, he had to apply for the program and once he was accepted to the program, this was an opportunity for him to get an, some experience working and developing some work ethic outside of school. So, we thought it would be a great chance for him to do that.
Rick Sizemore: Right, and Kathy, you’re a teacher?
Kathy Mathias: Yes.
Rick Sizemore: Tell us how that involvement in the education system and, and your career may have factored into this decision for Tom to go to Project SEARCH.
Kathy Mathias: I had some mixed feelings about it but I definitely saw the benefits to it and I just think it’s a wonderful program. I think it’s, it’s great that there are opportunities like this that are opening up for students that have Autism and, and disabilities to get experience in working in the community and, and to get jobs and um… So, I, you know, I thought it was wonderful.
Rick Sizemore: Not only as a teacher but as a mom, what feelings do you have when you consider helping Tom find a pathway where he can be independent? When that day comes that he may have to be on his own.
Kathy Mathias: It’s scary. These transitional periods of time are, are frightening. You don’t know what the next chapter holds. They look very different for parents with children with special needs and, and so when you get there, any, any help that you have with transitioning, any support that you have in your community is always welcome because it, there’s… It’s not laid out like it would be for other people.
Rick Sizemore: Right.
Kathy Mathias: And there’s not a clear picture of what that’s gonna look like for you. And so, you know, it, it’s a little nerve-racking.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah, for sure.
Kathy Mathias: I, I don’t know how Mike felt about it but that’s certainly the way I felt about it.
Mike Wood: Anyone who’s involved with any, in any way in the disability community knows about adult care cliffs and, you know, as, as Tom’s sort of moving into adulthood, that, that’s one of the things we, we, we, we’ve definitely been worried about. Sort of, you know, what, what’s the next step? What, what, what are the next things? What are the, what are the options that are going to be out there for him? And so, I, I think we’ve, we’ve sort of looked at Project SEARCH as hopefully a, a bridge for him to the next stage and he’s certainly gotten a lot out of it.
Betsy Civilette: Tom, if you can tell me in your words, what did you get out of Project SEARCH? How do you think it’s gonna help you get ready to move into a job?
Tom Wood: Well, Project SEARCH helped me learn how to follow a supervisor’s instructions. It helped me learn how to follow a schedule and stay on time. I had to get up at the same time every day and follow a schedule just like, like I will when I get a job.
Mike Wood: Yeah, that was a big, that was a big…
Betsy Civilette: Yeah.
Mike Wood: Change having to do all that by yourself.
Kathy Mathias: Mm-hmm.
Betsy Civilette: And who helped you with that?
Tom Wood: His name is Chuck Ashby.
Betsy Civilette: Mm-hmm, right and, and what do you think was one of the, the coolest or best tools like they gave you to do this job better?
Tom Wood: To do my best.
Rick Sizemore: I wish more people would follow Tom’s thoughts on that about simply, simply doing your best. What are your goals for the workforce in the future? Where do you want to get to once you finish up at Project SEARCH and move on to the next phase?
Tom Wood: I really like to get a job in another state, like California. I really want to work in a animation studio. I would like to write and cast people. I even wrote a screenplay once to show everyone what, what I could do and, and I sent it to one animation studio but I haven’t heard, heard back yet. But as of right now, I’m gonna get a job here in Winchester!
Mike Wood: Yeah. He’s a, Tom’s a very good, he’s a very good writer actually and, and really creative and he’s a, a… You know, we, we would love to figure out a way for him to, to channel that into, into something, you know, that, that would be productive for him. He actually did write a, a superhero screenplay, it was, it was a massive project, he did all on his own. Bigger than anything I’ve ever produced in my career and, and we sent it off and, you know, who knows what’ll happen.
Rick Sizemore: That’s so, that’s powerful and countless guests on this show, some with Autism, some, some without, lots of people have big dreams and we’re all about promoting those big dreams. But in the meantime, you talked about a job there in Winchester, what would that ideal job be for you, Tom?
Tom Wood: A stocker at Big Lots.
Betsy Civilette: Mm-hmm.
Rick Sizemore: Oh, my favorite store.
Rick Sizemore: Well, you know, and we all, we all have those steps along the way and…
Betsy Civilette: Right.
Rick Sizemore: I shared with some of the…
Betsy Civilette: You guys said the magic word, transition. And that’s, I think, really what Project SEARCH is all about is kind of just finding yourself. It might not be the ideal job what you, you know, doing at the, at the hospital but at least, as we’ve heard over and over again…
Rick Sizemore: Moving.
Betsy Civilette: You know, it really brings people out of their shell and makes them blossom. A lot of the, those students.
Mike Wood: What, what he does and he does really well at jobs where, at least I think so, where, you know, sort of those, those back office jobs or, or, or things where you can either work at a computer or your… You know, there’s less customer-facing jobs that, that he really seems to like where, you know, there, there’s certain tasks that you have to accomplish in, in sort of a certain period of time. So, yeah, he’s, I know he’s looking at jobs at Big Lots and then there’s some other warehousing jobs that he’s been looking at. But with just opportunities that, you know, will help him, help him grow, and learn how to manage his schedule, and, and deal with transportation, and all of the different things that, that, you know, he’ll have to do as an adult.
Betsy Civilette: Right. Well, Tom, if you could tell a friend a little story about your experience with Project SEARCH, what would you tell them?
Tom Wood: Project SEARCH is a great opportunity to work with lots of different people and learn lots of different jobs. It’s hard, it’s hard work but a lot of fun too.
Betsy Civilette: And what was your favorite department working in, was, was there any like special staff that worked with you?
Tom Wood: My favorite area is the dishwashing room.
Betsy Civilette: Mm-hmm.
Mike Wood: Yeah, you really liked that job.
Betsy Civilette: Oh, yeah?
Rick Sizemore: That’s a lot of fun…
Betsy Civilette: Well, yeah, and it, and then we’ve found with other Project SEARCH that, that the employees just really do get, have, create a special bond with the interns, and that’ why so many of our, our students are successful in even getting jobs at the, at that location if that’s their desire.
Mike Wood: Yeah, everyone at the hospital was really, was really encouraging. It’s a small town here in, in Winchester and so it is amazing the number of people I just met in, in just my life, you know, being around town, who work at the hospital and know about Project SEARCH and have made comments about, you know, “We, we love the kids that work, that come through Project SEARCH. We love working with them, you know. We love having them in our department.” I’ve heard that story from so many different people in the community. So, it’s, it, as a parent, it’s, it’s always made me, it’s just been very reassuring that it’s been, that it’s a good experience.
Betsy Civilette: What would you say to other parents who are, who are considering Project SEARCH for their own children to attend?
Kathy Mathias: He’s made a lot of growth this year. A lot of maturing has happened and, and I feel like this has been a great, a great year of growth and maturity for him and I, and I think other parents would see that as well. Some of the things that you don’t get in high school, learning, experiences, you’ll get, you find in this program.
Betsy Civilette: Mm-hmm.
Mike Wood: Yeah, it’s, it’s really great when, you know, when you get up at 7:00 in the morning and, you know, 7:00 or 7:15 and, and your, your adult son is, is waiting downstairs, you know, showered and dressed with his lunch packed, you know…
Rick Sizemore: Wow!
Mike Wood: Saying, “Dad, it’s time to go to work.” I mean, that’s, that’s, that’s what we’re seeing and it’s, it’s really fantastic.
Rick Sizemore: That’s a great payoff.
Mike Wood: Yeah.
Rick Sizemore: Thank you Tom, Mike, and Kathy for joining us today as Tom successfully concludes internships through Project SEARCH, the Winchester Medical Center in Winchester, Virginia.
Betsy Civilette: Yes.
Kathy Mathias: Thank you.
Mike Wood: Yeah, not a problem.
Betsy Civilette: We are fortunate to welcome to the podcast, Martin Kurylowski, who is a certified rehabilitation counselor and coordinates Transition and Education Services for DARS. Welcome, Martin.
Martin Kurylowski: Thanks for having me, Betsy, and Rick.
Rick Sizemore: Delighted to have you on the show. Martin, we’ve just heard from the Wood family and Tom, who just finished up a variety of internships at Winchester Medical Center through Project SEARCH. Tom has gained some extremely valuable work experience. He’s now ready to start applying for jobs. You must hear stories like this all the time, how does it make you feel to hear about Tom and, and his success?
Martin Kurylowski: Rick, it’s really inspiring and encouraging to me when I hear about Tom’s story, and when I get to hear, I’m so fortunate to hear about many other stories like his all the time when we’re talking about Project SEARCH. Interns, and graduates, and the success that they have in the program.
Betsy Civilette: Well, Tom’s parents are equally excited about how Project SEARCH has made this all possible. This is an exciting and inspiring story about an individual but, Martin, the scope of Project SEARCH is enormous. If you would give us an overview of Project SEARCH and just how far-reaching and impactful it really is.
Martin Kurylowski: Yeah. So, Betsy, I’ll start with just describing Project SEARCH and what this program is. Project SEARCH is a school-to-work transition program that’s primarily intended for students with significant disability-related barriers to employment. The students spend their final academic year entirely immersed within a host business where they participate in three different ten-week-long internship rotations that they are then matched with based upon their strengths, references, interest, and needs. The interns in Project SEARCH get to the program independently each day, just like they would for a real job. When interns arrive at the business, they start the day with classroom-based educational work-related skills before heading out into their internships for the remainder of the day. The interns are supported by a inner agency team of folks who work closely together to ensure that the students are successful. The goal of Project SEARCH is to get all students placed into competitive integrated employment so that once they graduate from Project SEARCH, they do begin looking for jobs in the community with support from the program’s job developer and their vocational counselor from DARS. SEARCH has now been replicated with over 600 programs around the world.
Rick Sizemore: Wow!
Martin Kurylowski: So, it’s not just the United States, but around the world and you’re right, Rick, like that’s kind of a crazy number and they’ve served over 5,000 individuals with disabilities each year. And here in Virginia, alone, we have 19 programs and have served almost 1600 individuals with disabilities since 2010. So, that’s a lot of young folks who are really benefitting from this great program, just like Tom, and starting their adult life on the path to independence.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah. If you follow DARS on social media, last year we had some photographs from some of the completion ceremonies or the graduations. They were phenomenal. The smiles and the excitement that’s going on when people complete this program it, it’s just, it’s just a, amazing. Project SEARCH graduations, they’re going on all over the state. Where are some of these locations here at home?
Martin Kurylowski: Rick, the graduations are one of my favorite things about Project SEARCH and it’s really hard to go to one without smiling ear to ear and possibly even…
Rick Sizemore: That’s right.
Martin Kurylowski: Shedding some tears…
Rick Sizemore: I know.
Martin Kurylowski: As you, ‘cause you just learning about this amazing journey that kids have, have gone on throughout that year in Project SEARCH, and the, the growth, and progress that they’ve made. We do have graduations happening all throughout May and June for all of our 19 active programs, which are in businesses like hospitals, we have three military installation programs at Fort Eustis, Fort Lee, and Naval Air Station Oceana…
Rick Sizemore: Wow.
Martin Kurylowski: And we even have one Project SEARCH program at Lansdowne Ski and Resort up in kind of Northern Virginia area. So, those graduations are happening pretty much, there’s one today, actually, it’s the first one and then throughout the month of June as well.
Rick Sizemore: We have three of six of the military bases in the world that are participating in Project SEARCH.
Betsy Civilette: Right, including I believe Fort Lee has its first ceremony this year.
Martin Kurylowski: That is correct this was their, their first year and…
Betsy Civilette: Mm-hmm.
Martin Kurylowski: It’s been a tremendous success with the partners at that, at that location.
Betsy Civilette: So, what do you think is the real value of Project SEARCH, not only for the students with disabilities but their families as well?
Martin Kurylowski: Yeah, well, I think there’s so many great things about SEARCH but, my boss always says, “Keep the main thing, the main thing.” So, I have to say that the real value of SEARCH is the program has amazing employment outcomes. Just when you think about national trends for youth with disabilities and I do have some numbers for you both. Those individuals who have disabilities, between 16 and 19 years old are employed at a rate of only 17% when compared to 31% of their peers without disabilities. And then when you talk about 20 to 24 year old’s with disabilities, they’re employed at 38% compared to 67% of their peers without disabilities. But here in Virginia, just in, with our graduates from 2021, we had 95 out of our 133 graduates became employed…
Rick Sizemore: Wow!
Martin Kurylowski: And that’s just 72… Yep that, it’s pretty impressive.
Betsy Civilette: Yeah.
Martin Kurylowski: It’s, that’s 72% employment rate for our graduates from 2021 and just looking at 2022 graduates 65% are employed at the moment and working an average of 24 and a half hours a week at well over minimum wage. And what’s even better and I think really speaks volumes about this program is that many times the host business can’t even wait until our graduates walk across that stage at the end of the year, they want to hire our interns right away. For example, this year, we already have 17 or 13% of our interns are employed and graduation hasn’t even happened. So, when I think of the value…
Betsy Civilette: Wow! Yeah.
Martin Kurylowski: Of Project SEARCH… Yeah, it’s, it’s kind of crazy, it’s, it defies the odds, and what I think is the real value is that the program gets results and it offers hope to students, families, and even professionals, that employment, and a greater level of independence, is a possibility even for our students with the most significant barriers.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah.
Betsy Civilette: Very well said.
Rick Sizemore: These host sites that you talk about, I heard a workforce development professional the other day, he was talking about the war for talent. Finding enough workers and certainly, you’re bringing talented people together in that great internship site and, and fulfilling a workforce need. Do you have a favorite story about Project SEARCH?
Martin Kurylowski: I absolutely do, Rick, and so…
Rick Sizemore: Let’s hear it!
Martin Kurylowski: My, my favorite story, it’s a young man who actually, he participated in Project SEARCH, you know, pretty much around the inception, over ten years ago in Christiansburg at Carilion New River Valley Medical Center. Yeah, this was an individual who before he participated in Project SEARCH, people would tell him that they didn’t think that he’d ever be able to be employed, they tell his family that they, they really didn’t see employment being an opportunity or an option. He was a shy student who had a lot of anxiety and worries about being able to work, obviously, and was very insecure and unsure about himself and had a hard time handling constructive criticism. At home, his parents had difficulty getting him up and out of the house to make it to school and even get to the Project SEARCH program in the, in the early days. Throughout the program he experienced a lot of growth as he went through those internships, really demonstrated that he can work and he was offered a position by the hospital upon graduation. Now this isn’t unusual or exceptional in itself, a lot of our interns get employed as, as I told you before. But for this young person, what’s so special to me is that he’s remained employed at the hospital for almost 12 years now.
Rick Sizemore: Wow.
Martin Kurylowski: He’s become a lead trainer for new staff who begin work in the same position as he did. And in his personal life he’s been able to purchase a car, own a home, and he would probably most proudly tell you that he’s got himself a girlfriend. Which I can tell you, you know, it, it helps if you have a job and you’re, and you’re making some money.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah.
Martin Kurylowski: Have a car and a, and a home.
Betsy Civilette: Right.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah.
Martin Kurylowski: So, I just love his story because we’re talking about someone who has really humbly and reliably held down an entry-level kind of high-turnover job for over a decade and in doing so he’s achieved a greater quality of life for himself and has become an inspiration to other people.
Rick Sizemore: That’s fantastic.
Betsy Civilette: Right, and a, a future, right.
Rick Sizemore: Well, Martin, this has been an amazing podcast. We have to wrap things up kind of quickly here. But you’re moving to a new job, tell us about that, and as you leave DARS and move on to the future, what inspired you most about being involved with Project SEARCH?
Martin Kurylowski: Yeah, thank you, Rick. I’m, I’m very sad to be leaving DARS but I am moving on to Department for Behavioral Health and Developmental Services and I’m very happy that I’ll be continuing to work in support of people with disabilities in Virginia. Rick, one of the most inspirational things to me as I look back at Project SEARCH, is really the team of dedicated professionals who are on site every day working with students through thick and thin. I mean, it’s not always the smoothest ride for, for students but that team, you know, puts their heart and soul into the program because they witness first-hand how powerful the transformation is for students between day one of the program and then through to graduation and getting employed. I just have tremendous respect and admiration for all of the professionals, you know from the schools, the business, from DARS. And as I leave DARS, I just want them to know that they are truly doing something special and making a difference.
Rick Sizemore: Fantastic.
Betsy Civilette: Absolutely and the, as, as I’ve attended these ceremonies too, the employees of these host sites, they love the students and they miss them dearly, I think, when they, they leave.
Rick Sizemore: Well, Martin Kurylowski, currently is a coordinator for Transition and Education Services with Virginia DARS. Thank you for being on our podcast today.
Martin Kurylowski: Thank you so much for having me, Rick and Betsy, and this has been a pleasure.
Betsy Civilette: Best of luck on your new job. We will miss you!
Martin Kurylowski: Thank you very much.
Rick Sizemore: Well, it’s time for the National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials report with the always entertaining and informative Heather Servais. Heather, all across the country we’re hearing about Project SEARCH graduations from families just like Tom’s. It’s an exciting time.
Heather Servais: It really is an exciting time for all the Project SEARCH participants and all of those who work with those students as they go through the program. I’m, I’m so excited for your listeners to learn a little bit from Tom and then also just to hear about Project SEARCH and what an impact it can have on students with disabilities.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah, Mental Health Month too.
Heather Servais: It is! May is Mental Health Month and at the Clearinghouse we just released our newest published curated list and the curated list on mental health has 26 different resources, all targeted to a variety of audiences including; individuals with disabilities, VR professionals, sign language interpreters and businesses. So, this is a really great place if you’re looking into mental health resources and learning more about mental health and what’s available. This is one place you can find a lot of resources at your fingertips. And I know you’ve heard me talk about the curated lists on the podcast before, Rick, and just letting you know we’re up to 20 different curated lists that are available on a variety of topics and we’re adding new lists on a quarterly basis. So, we always encourage listeners to check back frequently. And more than that, if there is a topic that you’re interested in that you would like to propose for a future curated list, we would love to hear from you. So please, you can contact our team at NCRTM@neweditions.net.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah. Rehabilitation counselors and my wife is a rehabilitation counselor who just started working at Wilson Workforce, they love to keep that link as a favorite right on their desktop. So, they are just a click away from incredible resources at the Clearinghouse.
Heather Servais: I’m glad to hear that. And then I have some other exciting news to share.
Rick Sizemore: All right!
Heather Servais: I want to talk a little bit about the Disability Innovation Fund, DIF, Pathways to Partnership. In April, the US Department of Education Rehabilitation Services Administration, what we call RSA, announced a notice inviting applications for the Disability Innovation Funds, Pathways to Partnership Innovative Model Demonstration Project. And we’re excited to, to let our folks know out there that the application deadline was recently extended till Friday, July 7th, 2023 at 11:59 pm. And what’s really great and exciting about this program, the Pathways to Partnership program, is the largest discretionary grant administered by RSA with an estimated $224 million available to fund multiple innovative model demonstration projects administered through partnerships. So, for this opportunity, the eligible applicants are state vocational rehabilitation agencies, SVRAs, and state educational agencies, SEAs. And there’s required partners which are the VR agencies and SEAs like mentioned, but also other required partners are local education agencies and federally funded centers for independent living. So, if you’re interested in learning more about the Disability Innovation Fund, Pathways to Partnership, we’ve got a lot of resources to share with you that I’m gonna make sure Rick has for our show notes. There’s a video, this 14, minute video shares the history of the DIF Program, talks about the goals to the Pathways to Partnership Project, and shares messages from key federal change agents at the US Department of Education and at the Administration for Community Living. The links will be in the show notes so we encourage you to check that out. We also have the RSA discretionary grants page which offers general information about RSA discretionary grants, including the Pathways to Partnership opportunity. And then lastly, when we’re thinking about all things DIF, there was a new webpage that was launched on the NCRTM back in April and this new page, the Disability Innovation Fund Programs page, offers a history of each iteration of former and current DIF programs as well as share some of the products, and results, and past programs, that helps users really understand the impact of these DIF programs that, that are having on the educational and employment outcomes for individuals with disabilities. Also just want to share that if you’re interested in, or have questions in the Pathways to Partnership Program, the competition manager is Cassandra Shoffler with the US Department of Education and the email that you can use for questions is 84.421E@ed.gov and all of that information will be in the show notes for you.
Rick Sizemore: Awesome! There’s so much excitement, lots of energy in the communities that we serve. So, thank you so much for your report. Heather Servais directs RSA’s National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials and joins us each month for the Clearinghouse report. Links and resources from the NCRTM are included in the show notes at vrworkforcestudio.com. Thanks, Heather.
Heather Servais: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Rick.
Rick Sizemore: Well, thank you for getting involved in today’s show. If you or someone you know has a disability and wants to get into the workforce, vocational rehabilitation may just be the answer to kickstart your career. Visit us at vrworkforcestudio.com to find links and resources as well as our contact information. On behalf of my co-host, Betsy Civilette, I’m Rick Sizemore inviting you to join us as we podcast the sparks that ignite vocational rehabilitation.
Jake Hart: The VR Workforce Studio Podcast is owned and operated by Vocational Rehabilitation’s Partners in Podcasting. Audio content for the podcast is provided to VR Partners in Podcasting by the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, in exchange for promotional considerations.
Betsy Civilette: I got a wasp in the house, sorry.
Rick Sizemore: You what? You have a wasp?
Betsy Civilette: There’s a wasp. Okay, sorry.