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Superior's Project SEARCH celebrates student success

Young adults with disabilities change perspectives and gain skills through the Superior program, educators and their families say.

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Project SEARCH graduates, from left, Liza McCoshen, C. J. Wicklund, Garrett Lickiss and Josh Gerding show their diplomas to the crowd at a celebration at the Lake Superior Estuarium on Friday, June 3.
Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram
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SUPERIOR — Four young adults graduated from the Superior School District’s Project SEARCH Friday, June 3, at the Lake Superior Estuarium.

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Project SEARCH graduate Liza McCoshen, left, gives a thumbs up standing next to Project SEARCH educator Emily Winker during a graduation celebration on Friday, June 3, at the Lake Superior Estuarium.
Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram

The collaborative program offers training and career exploration in a hands-on work environment for young adults with disabilities. Each of the participants rotated through three different internships at local businesses during the school year.

Two of the “22 Crew” have already found jobs in the community. Garrett Lickiss has been hired at Superior Meats while Josh Gerging will work at the Harborview Super One Foods store. A third, C. J. Wicklund, learned Friday that he’ll be getting a call for a start date at Ravin Crossbows. Liza McCoshen has gone to a number of job interviews.

“I just want to say I’m very incredibly proud of these young adults before me,” said Project SEARCH instructor Emily Winker. “Josh, Garrett, C. J., Liza, you guys have come such a far, far journey this year.”

The participants have been close knit and positive since the beginning of the program, she said.

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“And from there, they really held each other accountable and pushed each other to become better and better,” Winker said. “I just want to say that they’ve proved that anyone with a disability or any type of barrier or challenge can do amazing things.”

Katie Sides, a skills trainer and job developer with Embark Supported Employment who works with Winker, said being involved with the interns has changed her perspective.

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At left, Jenifer Cole with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development looks on as Project SEARCH graduates Josh Gerding, Garrett Lickiss and C. J. Wicklund pose for a selfie during a graduation ceremony on Friday, June 3, at the Lake Superior Estuarium.
Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram

“You work hard. You prove people wrong every day. You all are so talented, and it’s really inspiring for me, for Ms. Emily and for everybody in the community,” Sides said.

The program, which launched in the 2020-2021 school year, is a collaborative effort between the school district and area businesses. The Superior Business Center has been home to the program for two years. One of their tenants, Environmental Control and Testing, has offered internships for Project SEARCH both years, as has Cooper Elementary School. The Strength Factory, which is housed at the business center, provided facilities for them to work out on Wednesdays.

Internships were found at other area businesses based on student interest. They included Kwik Trip, where Lickiss said he fried “all the chicken,” and working in the accessories department at Ravin Crossbows, which has welcomed interns both years.

“We all get to watch them grow and see them become what they are today, and I think they helped improve a lot of the people in our staff that we already have, so it goes both ways,” said Nicole Dzikonski, supervisor of accessories for the business.

Once the participants are employed, it’s not the end of the connection to Project SEARCH.

“They still qualify for job coaching services if they need it,” Winker said. “So typically, when they first start these jobs, Katie is there to help and coach and train them in. We slowly kind of ease back again, because they don’t need us anymore.”

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After the Friday ceremony, family members took pictures of their graduates. Gerding was surrounded by his parents, two grandmothers, a grandfather and an uncle. He earned his diploma from Superior High School later that evening, and celebrated his 19th birthday on Saturday, June 4. Taking him out of SHS his senior year to attend Project SEARCH was a hard decision, said his mother Alycen, but it was 100% worth it.

“He has gone from here to here this year, absolutely,” she said describing the change in her son. “In everything, confidence, skills — life skills, I mean — little things, asking for help ... ‘I got this’ is what he always says. ‘I got this. I can do this.’”

“Proud, proud proud,” said his grandmother, Cheryl Maciejeski.

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Project SEARCH graduates and their families smile as they watch a presentation featuring pictures from their internships and classwork over the year at the Lake Superior Estuarium on Friday, June 3. The graduates are, front row, from left, Josh Gerding, Garrett Lickiss, C. J. Wicklund and Liza McCoshen.
Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram

The students were among 180 who graduated from Wisconsin’s 25 Project SEARCH sites this spring. The Superior-based program is available to young adults with disabilities throughout northwestern Wisconsin. For Wicklund, being enrolled in the program involved a cab ride from Iron River to Superior each day. Winker said the next closest Project SEARCH site is in Rice Lake.

The Superior program has a history of success. Three of the four young adults who took part in the inaugural class, 2020-2021, have secured employment, Winker said. One was hired by Ravin Crossbows prior to the 2021 graduation and is about to celebrate one year of working with the company. Two of the other alumni were accepted into Northwood Technical College’s 1-week hospitality program. They graduated just before the holiday season and are now employed by Walmart and Arby’s.

Winker said they expect to have up to eight participants in next year's Project SEARCH.

The school district launched a precursor to Project SEARCH, called Project LIFE, in January. The course is offered to juniors and seniors in high school through their Individualized Education Program. Shawna Anderson, coordinator for both Project LIFE and Project SEARCH, said the program currently has eight students. Ten students have signed up for Project LIFE for the 2022-2023 school year.

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Project SEARCH graduates, from left, Liza McCoshen, C. J. Wicklund, Garrett Lickiss and Josh Gerding pose for a silly photo following a graduation ceremony on Friday, June 3, at the Lake Superior Estuarium.
Maria Lockwood / Superior Telegram

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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