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Empowering students with disabilities: Internship program paves the way for inclusive skill development and future employment

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Empowering students with disabilities: Internship program paves the way for inclusive skill development and future employment

Thanks to a partnership with Fairview Ridges Hospital and Project SEARCH, a program that helps secure competitive employment for people with disabilities, six Burnsville-Eagan-Savage Transition (BEST) students who will graduate from the BEST program this spring are interns at the hospital this year. 

The goal of Project SEARCH is for interns to obtain competitive, integrated employment within 9 months after the completion of their internship experience. According to Fairview’s Workforce Pathway Consultant Melissa Siebenaler, about 75% of students who participate in the program find gainful employment. 

A group of six BEST student-interns at Fairview Ridges Hospital

On Sept. 15, a kickoff celebration of the Project SEARCH partnership with Fairview was held at the hospital, where Siebenaler introduced the newest group of interns to an audience that included healthcare professionals, hospital administrators and community stakeholders.

BEST student interns include Kowsar Abdille, Matthew Angara, Jordan Gosen, Ridthy Keo, Charlotte Portwood and Bethlehem Zerihun. This is the first time that BEST students are participating in the program, which launches Sept. 25.

To qualify for the internship, students participated in a skills assessment and then interviewed with the Project Search team, which included the county providers, vocational rehabilitation service providers and hospital staff.

During the nine-month internship experience, students will build a variety of skills, including communication, teamwork and problem solving. While most of the students’ days will consist of hands-on work in their assigned department, they will also have one hour of classroom instruction where they’ll cover additional topics like health and wellness, technology, self-advocacy and financial literacy.

Through a series of three internship rotations every 10 weeks, students will acquire competitive, marketable and transferable skills as they are fully immersed into a job within a department, such as pediatrics, research lab, nutrition services, environmental services and more. BEST instructor Shelly Erickson, along with skills trainer Sharon Frank, will support students throughout their experience at the hospital. Not only will they be teaching the curriculum, but then they will also float between departments to support the application of students’ learning. 

“This internship opportunity is extremely exciting because it is a culmination of all the skills the students have learned through BEST and now gives them the opportunity to apply those skills,” said Dr. Jennifer Middendorf, District 191 student support services supervisor and BEST program supervisor. “It also provides them with the opportunity to explore career options within the hospital setting, which supports their goals of being competitively employed when they leave the BEST program. I am proud to see how much growth they have made through their hard work.”

Matthew, who will be working in the supply chain department during the first rotation, is looking forward to meeting his new co-workers and learning new skills through job training. One of his goals is to make sure he asks questions when he doesn’t understand something. He is also curious about the personal protective equipment that he will be using during the day. 

student intern speaking at Fairview Ridges hospital kickoff celebration

Jordan is feeling pretty calm about starting the internship and is excited to meet the new team he will be a part of. Over the years, Jordan has said his passions have changed, but working at the hospital will provide him with a variety of new experiences that will help him decide what kind of job he wants to do once he graduates. 

Bethlehem is thrilled that she will be working in pediatrics during the first rotation. Since she has taken care of her younger brothers and sisters for quite some time now, she feels confident and ready to care for babies in the pediatric department. Bethlehem, who is Ethiopian and speaks fluent Amharic, is a little nervous about the language barrier she may encounter. However, she finds comfort in knowing that there are Fairview employees in her unit that speak her language and can help her navigate any problems she might face. 

“We are very excited for the Project SEARCH and BEST partnership with Fairview Ridges Hospital,” said Amy Piotrowski, District 191 director of student support services. “The employment and social skills the students will gain from this experience will prepare them for their future. It is evident that Fairview Ridges is an inclusive, safe environment where young adults with disabilities can learn and grow and truly become Future Ready and Community Strong.”

The BEST program serves young adults who are ages 18-21 years who have an individual education program (IEP) plan targeting preparation for adult life. Students have a graduation plan that identifies skills they need to reach their employment, postsecondary, and independent living goals. Skills are acquired in the classroom, community and various postsecondary settings.

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