Eastmont students thriving in innovative program at Stemilt for those with developmental challenges
Seven pioneering Eastmont High School students with intellectual challenges are spending their final school year as interns at Stemilt Growers as part of Project SEARCH, a national program that creates an opportunity for a unique educational and work environment.
They are full-fledged Stemilters who are learning important jobs in the company, with the assistance and guidance of Instructor Terry Brown and Skills Trainers Jane Turner and Isis Sanchez-Rodriguez, who are helping the interns learn processes and skills that help them succeed.
The seven interns l completed their fall internship at Stemilt in December and are now in their second internship. Project SEARCH creates opportunities for students, schools and local employers to create meaningful opportunities for students to learn job skills and get used to workplace culture and expectations.
Transition Coordinator Michelle Sadewasser and Transition Specialist Tina Gorman at Eastmont helped implement the program that launched last fall with the support of Stemilt, the school district, the Chelan Douglas Develomental Disabilities Program and Link Transit .
I was invited last week to meet with the interns and staff. The interns were enthusiastic and engaged, although understandably a bit shy about being interviewed, and the staff helping them were effusive in their praise for the work the interns were doing and how they have gained confidence, social skills and learned to pull their weight as employees.
“Josh, you should be proud of yourself,” Turner said to Josh Hernke, who had a job repacking boxes in the fall and is now working on the production line preparing boxes. Josh is a world-class kidder with a mischievous smile and wonderful laugh. When asked what he’s planning to do after he graduates, he told me he’s going to be playing football for the Florida Gators. “Josh’s communication has improved a lot — he’s making himself understood really well,” said Turner.
I also spoke with Emily Hensley, who had a job in the fall in accounts payable and is now working in the Stemilt retail store. She’s shy around strangers, but Turner said she’s gained self confidence and, when she is unsure about where products should be placed in the store, is confident enough to ask for help. She’s also learning to accept that she’s going to make mistakes because that’s how we all learn, said Turner.
These kinds of work experiences have been limited for individuals with developmental challenges not just in our region but all over the country. Project SEARCH is intended to build constructive bridges to employment that creates more equitable opportunities for folks who are often left out.
Emily says she prefers working at Stemilt as an intern over being at the high school and Josh echoed those sentiments.
All of the interns in the program have shown lots of growth. Thanks to the helpful folks at Link Transit who have helped them learn to get to work on public transit, they’ve become more adventurous in the community.
The Project SEARCH interns and staff are pioneers in what could be a program that could transform how people with developmental challenges can be a greater part of our communities.
Sadewasser and Gorman are already looking ahead to next year. They’ve been talking to other school districts in the valley and encouraged them to have students apply to be part of Project SEARCH next year. They’re also developing a Business Advisory Council of local leaders who can open doors for other employment opportunities with local businesses.
If you’re interested in being on the advisory council, reachout to [email protected]. It is refreshing to have a program of this caliber opening doors and creating new opportunities for these young adults to be successful and gain meaningful employment down the road. Great communities create opportunities for those who are often left out. It takes courageous individuals like the seven intrepid Eastmont High pioneers to get a program going. Along with Henke and Hensley, the others are: Cole Hale, Luis Perez Jr., Kennon Watson, Karen Cervantes and Olivia Leonhardt.