Since September, four young adults with disabilities have been exploring career options through Project SEARCH.

As they intern at local jobs, narrow down their interests and learn new skills, the students are helping change the culture in Douglas County.

Nash Effinger, a 2020 Superior High School graduate, has his sights set on becoming a mechanic. Classmate Isabella Fonseca said she’d like a job working with people, possibly at a shop like Build-A-Bear. Steven LaFave, a senior at Superior High School, is exploring many different options.

“My dream job is to make a million dollars,” said Ted Davey, the oldest intern at 36.

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More realistically, he’s interested in a job at Feradyne Outdoors, a Superior business that manufactures archery equipment.

The students are currently in their second of three rounds of unpaid internships, and they've grown a lot during their experiences, said Shawna Anderson, Project SEARCH coordinator and special education transition coordinator with the Superior School District.

“I knew that they would do well, because I worked with many of them last year while they were still here at the high school, but to see what they’re doing when given the opportunity, I’m truly amazed and impressed with their skills,” Anderson said.

Eye-opening experience

Two of the interns have worked at Environmental Consulting and Testing, an anchor tenant at the Superior Business Center. The business provides aquatic test organisms, designs testing apparatus and does water toxicity testing.

Ted Davey, an intern at Project SEARCH, moves coolers to be picked up at Environmental Consulting and Testing in the Superior Business Center Tuesday, Feb. 23. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Ted Davey, an intern at Project SEARCH, moves coolers to be picked up at Environmental Consulting and Testing in the Superior Business Center Tuesday, Feb. 23. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Lab manager Katie Wormer said the interns have been helpful and delightful to work with. Furthermore, it's been eye-opening to learn what the students are capable of and to get to know them.

“They come in happy to be here,” Wormer said.

Project SEARCH instructor Emily Winker helped bridge the gap by letting employers know the young adults’ capabilities and providing on-the-job coaching. She also meets with the interns for an hour each morning at Superior Business Center to focus on life skills and set goals.

LaFave, 18, started an internship at Screen Graphics Feb. 15. In the first two weeks, he packaged, trimmed and steamed clothing. He has also peeled and paired shirt fronts and backs as they come off a machine that prints designs onto the cloth.

Steven LaFave, an intern at Project SEARCH, folds shirts at Screen Graphics Tuesday, Feb. 23, in Superior. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Steven LaFave, an intern at Project SEARCH, folds shirts at Screen Graphics Tuesday, Feb. 23, in Superior. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

The business provided the internship to be a good community partner, according to Screen Graphics operations manager Pat Messina. LaFave is detail oriented and does a nice job.

“It just gives a person like Steven or whomever an opportunity to show what they can really do,” he said.

Other job sites include the Salvation Army of Superior, where Effinger helps sort, pack and label items, and a 3-year-old kindergarten class at Cooper Elementary School where Fonseca works.

Project SEARCH instructor Emily Winker, left, joins a table with students as intern Isabella Fonseca, back right, cuts out fish in the 3K classroom at Cooper Elementary School in Superior Tuesday, Feb. 23. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Project SEARCH instructor Emily Winker, left, joins a table with students as intern Isabella Fonseca, back right, cuts out fish in the 3K classroom at Cooper Elementary School in Superior Tuesday, Feb. 23. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Mary Chiastri, a substitute teacher who has worked on and off with Fonseca, said she’s seen Fonseca grow and learn to take initiative.

“I think it’s a perfect environment for them to be able to develop skills because they can be really hands on, and they can receive a lot of guidance from the staff,” Chiastri said.

The internships are key to opening employment doors for local adults with disabilities, Anderson said.

“We can prepare them and help them and teach them, but unless the community is willing to embrace them and employ them, it’s not going to do any good," she said. "So it’s just as much about teaching the interns and giving them the skills as it is slowly changing the mindset of employers in the community.”

Nine students have applied to be involved in Project SEARCH next year. For them to get the most out of the program, internship opportunities are needed. Winker said they are also seeking additional job sites for the current group's third rotation, particularly a mechanic or other auto-related business for Effinger to work at.

LaFave encouraged businesses to give it a try.

"Everyone deserves a chance," the 18-year-old said.

It takes a village

Each year, special education graduates are surveyed about what they did in the year after graduation. Anderson shared some of those numbers at a Feb. 9 community conversation on bridging the gap for adults with disabilities.

According to a survey of 2019 graduates, 13.5% of Superior High School students enrolled in a technical college or university for at least one semester, compared to 23% of their peers in Douglas County and 26% statewide.

Nearly 38% of Superior graduates were competitively employed in an integrated setting, earning at least minimum wage and working at least 20 hours a week. That was lower than the Douglas County and state numbers, at 41% and 46%, respectively.

Another 14% of Superior students were involved in other training or education, and 8% were involved in other employment, like a family business or apprenticeship.

Many 2019 graduates reported they had never participated in postsecondary schooling or employment: 18.9% of Superior students, 11.5% in Douglas County and 12% in the state didn't take part in school or work during that year.

Results of a survey taken by special education graduates a year after their exit. The 2020 data reflects students who graduated in 2019; the 2019 data reflects students who graduated in 2018 and the 2018 data reflects students who graduated in 2017.  The results are unduplicated, meaning a student who reported being enrolled at a university or technical college would not be counted in any of the other categories. (Graphic courtesy of the Superior School District)
Results of a survey taken by special education graduates a year after their exit. The 2020 data reflects students who graduated in 2019; the 2019 data reflects students who graduated in 2018 and the 2018 data reflects students who graduated in 2017. The results are unduplicated, meaning a student who reported being enrolled at a university or technical college would not be counted in any of the other categories. (Graphic courtesy of the Superior School District)

The numbers were comparable for 2018 graduates.

That's a big concern, Anderson said, and one that will take a village to address.

Those who took part in the community conversation are considering a number of initiatives: Specialized training to help businesses learn ways they can be more friendly to people with disabilities, modeled after Douglas County's dementia-friendly initiative; and a mentorship program to connect students with people in the community who can encourage them to reach their potential.

Community members can choose to support businesses that employ adults with disabilities, officials said. The school district has a role, as well, in getting students to prepare for their future before graduation.

Young adults who have graduated in the last few years and their parents are encouraged to contact Anderson at shawna.anderson@superior.k12.wi.us or 715-394-8720, ext. 41294, for more information on their options.

Older adults can also contact their current provider, the Superior Vocation Center, Challenge Center or Douglas County Aging and Disability Resource Center.