Through Project SEARCH, we’re partnering to help teens and young adults with developmental disabilities reach their full potential

At Cincinnati Children’s, we’ve made a strong commitment to pursue our potential together, so that all kids can pursue theirs. 

One standout example of this is the work we do to improve quality-of-life outcomes for kids with disabilities. This starts by caring for their medical needs first, but goes far beyond that to helping them gain independence and achieve their educational and career goals.

Since 1996, our Project SEARCH program has been hard at work, empowering teens and young adults with disabilities by providing the tools they need for meaningful employment—empowering them to lead happier, more fulfilling futures. What started as a pilot program right here at Cincinnati Children’s has grown to an international network of 622 program sites in 48 states and 10 countries.

As an academic medical center, our expert research drives world-class care—and education is a vital component in our mission. Not only education within our walls to train the next generation of pediatric experts, but also across organizations and communities. By sharing our knowledge of advances in medicine and novel programs, we can help even more kids reach their full potential.

And for Project SEARCH graduates like Gretchen, the results of this important work have been life-changing.

Soaring Above and Beyond Medical Care 

Gretchen was one of the very first participants of Project SEARCH, and she’s been a dedicated member of our Cincinnati Children’s employee family for more than 20 years. Born with Down syndrome, she attended a local high school for kids with developmental disabilities. That just so happens to be where she first crossed paths with Erin Riehle, RN, MSN.

At the time, Erin was a volunteer basketball coach for Gretchen’s school. She was also nursing director of our Emergency Department­—and she had already started developing an idea for an employment preparation program with the help of Susie Rutkowski, BS, MEd, who was then the manager of Disability Education at Great Oaks Career Campuses. 

“For me it was a justice issue—a fight for diversity and equity,” Erin says. “The heart of it was this ‘ah-ha’ moment, where I was aware that so many of our patients are kids with disabilities. I realized that if we’re going to provide care for people with disabilities throughout their lives, we also need to be a place that includes them as employees.”

The primary objective of Project SEARCH is to secure competitive employment for people with significant disabilities. In a supportive learning environment, teaching experts and job coaches work with youth and young adults who have chronic illnesses, traumatic injuries and other developmental disorders. In their final year of high school, students get to leave the classroom and move to Cincinnati Children’s or another host business to intern for the entire school year.

No one predicted just how successful Erin’s training model would be—or how far-reaching. Since its humble beginnings, Project SEARCH has set up sites with businesses around the world. More than 29,000 students have graduated the work-preparation program since 2010, and between 4,500 and 5,000 students take part each year.

It’s a win-win for both the students and the industries they enter, as participants often go on to work full-time or part-time in positions that are hard to fill or retain. And the variety of work opportunities is expanding almost as much as the program itself.

“We have program sites around the world in banks, zoos, military bases, museums and more,” Erin says. “These are good, robust jobs that help young people with disabilities move toward independence.”

Project SEARCH is a marker of our long-time commitment to diversity and inclusion. It’s ingrained in our culture to recognize the strengths each and every person can bring to the table. And with the help of philanthropy from our charitable partners, Cincinnati Children’s employees like Erin can soar beyond their established role to develop creative solutions.

Partnering with Families So Kids Reach Their Full Potential

Supporters like Gretchen’s mom Florence are the reason why we’re able to get programs like Project SEARCH off the ground.

“I was so grateful that someone saw Gretchen for her talent,” she says. “She’s found meaningful work that she loves, and the enrichment she’s received has helped her develop her independence and her ability to express herself.”

Florence and her late husband, Ronald, donated to several different areas of the hospital—both to support research and as a way to give back for the quality care their daughter has received here. They saw Project SEARCH as the beginning of their daughter’s new life entering adulthood, and they wanted to support the program by investing in it with a generous gift.

After hands-on training, Gretchen’s had the opportunity to gain experience working in several different departments of the medical center over the years. Today she works full-time with Child Life and Integrative Care, helping to make sure the toys for kids who stay at the hospital are safely sanitized. 

“I’d encourage others to support Project SEARCH because it benefits everyone—the medical center, society, and the young people with disabilities,” says Florence. “This program gives them the tools they need to flourish.” 

Support Is Needed Now More  Than Ever

Like so many programs, Project SEARCH has deeply felt the impact of COVID-19—especially because the primary focus for students is hands-on training and instruction. 

“We’re always working to improve and innovate,” says Maryellen Daston, PhD, Project SEARCH specialist. “During COVID-19, we’ve created at-home skill-building activities so students can still learn our concepts of productivity and quality. It’s one way our team has responded and adjusted to the challenges.”

Having a good job and working with others to contribute as part of a team means everything to the young people who have the opportunity to join Project SEARCH.

When watching Gretchen clean toys for the kids in the hospital who love to play with them, you can see her glowing with pride and confidence. And when asked if she enjoys her job, she responds with an enthusiastic “Yes!”

Project SEARCH is so important to Gretchen, in fact, that she also supports the program as an employee donor.

But as the pandemic continues to affect businesses, it also affects the opportunities to build sustainable program sites for the incoming students who need them.

“We typically start between 50 and 70 programs per year, which helps with operating costs,” Erin says. “In 2020, we’ve only been able to establish 20—and that’s 100 percent due to COVID-19.”

Because of Project SEARCH, there are thousands of people with disabilities who have found their path to a fulfilling career, and hundreds of employers around the world who benefit from their dedicated work. It’s a critical time right now, and there’s still more to be done.

For more information on how you can support Project SEARCH, please contact Ashley Titus at 513-803-6593 or ashley.titus@cchmc.org