Nine students from the school-to-work program for youth with intellectual or developmental disabilities reflect on a year filled with new experiences and look toward to meaningful employment opportunities ahead
Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital (Holland Bloorview) together with Toronto Rehab-UHN were host sites to nine Project SEARCH Toronto students who are now approaching the end of their final high school year before entering the work force. Holland Bloorview hosted the co-op placements and Toronto Rehab-UHN hosted the daily classroom sessions. Project SEARCH is an international transition-to-work program for youth with a primary diagnosis of an intellectual or developmental disability and this group of Toronto District School Board (TDSB) students will be the first graduates of the 10-month program in Toronto.
“We are extremely grateful for our partnership with Project SEARCH Toronto. We are all so proud of the successes achieved by our students in our first year with this program and look forward to an ongoing partnership,” said Angela Nardi-Addesa, TDSB System Superintendent, Special Education and Inclusion. “The focussed learning aligns with our Multi-Year Strategic Plan goal of increasing employment opportunities and outcomes for all students with Low Incidence Exceptionalities (Intellectual Disabilities, Physical Disability, Low Vision, Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and Health/Medical).”
While the unprecedented event of the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the learning experience of all students in Ontario and beyond since mid-March, the program had to pivot and adapt to a virtual platform – inclusive of a graduation celebration taking place on June 23. The last three months focused on individualized coaching and skill-building, tailored to each of the students’ job aspirations.
“The students showed tremendous adaptability as we moved to daily video meeting learning,” says Lisa Cunha de Freitas, Project SEARCH Toronto and TDSB teacher. “They built skills related to the use of technology and demonstrated responsibility and resilience. With the support of Project SEARCH partner organizations, we were happy to be able to continue building momentum towards employment. The students are very excited about the virtual graduation and future employment prospects.”
“I have learned many new skills including preparing for an interview, office computer programs and how to work in an office environment,” says Andrew Kinapen, 19, student. “I have really enjoyed meeting new people and working with my colleagues. I will be able to use this experience in all my future work and look forward to working with the Holland Bloorview Foundation team.”
“My favourite part about Project SEARCH was the time spent with the staff and my peers,” said Congxiao Wang, 20, student. “I learned how to greet people professionally at work, how to use a cash register, make pizza in the cafeteria and how to work with children. I’m looking forward to using what I learned to get a job.”
After graduation, Community Living Toronto’s knowledgeable staff will support students and employers in the job start-up. Students and staff create a personalized plan together to gain quality employment.
The Project SEARCH model was introduced in Ontario as an innovative best practice by the Ontario Disability Employment Network (ODEN) and United Way Greater Toronto’s Career Navigator program funded the employment and developmental service supports. ODEN and United Way Greater Toronto are active partners along with a strong Business Advisory Council whose 11 members inform the training program and network with employers to open doors for graduates.