A program that cultivates the talents of young people with disabilities is marking a decade at Fifth Third Bank.
The bank said its West Michigan region this year is celebrating its 10th year of participation with Project SEARCH, a yearlong school-to-work transition program for 18-to-26-year-olds with physical or developmental disabilities.
The program, developed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 1996, now operates internationally as a public-private collaboration of local entities in each community.
In West Michigan, the key players are the employers, Fifth Third and Spectrum Health (the latter joined eight years ago); Hope Network, which provides job coaches and support services; and Grand Rapids Public Schools, which provides teachers to lead the classroom instruction.
Emily Brooks is site supervisor at Fifth Third Bank’s Corporate Service Center in Grand Rapids. She said atop the list of 22 eligibility requirements for candidates is the requirement to be ready for independence and understand what it will mean.
“They need to want this to be their last year of schooling, so when they’re done, they’re off into the real world and not into other transition programming,” she said.
Other requirements include having a desire to apply for the program after touring a site; independent daily living, hygiene and grooming skills; the ability to maintain appropriate behavior and social skills; and the ability to take direction from supervisors and change behavior.
Each participating Project SEARCH employer runs its own program, and the format varies slightly from place to place.
At Fifth Third, each student participates in three 10-week rotations, which include classroom instruction focused on real-life skills, such as typing, dealing with money, problem-solving, creating a resume and doing mock interviews.
Norma Golden, a GRPS teacher who provides the education component in the program, said the impact on the students is tangible.
“I see results quickly through the school year as they grow,” she said. “Within the first three weeks of being in the classroom, the students realize what potential they have and take on their adult roles.”
Brooks said students will know what to expect with the way the schedule is structured.
“Our students do two hours in classroom in the morning, two hours in their (work) rotation, break for lunch and do two more hours in their rotation,” Brooks said. “The rotations run a full school year, and they get three 10-week rotations — three rotations in three different departments throughout the school year.”
The departments at Fifth Third where students have done rotations include the bistro/cafeteria, collection disputes, commercial loans, consumer contact, loss mitigation and the mail room.
Nathan Jones completed the program in 2017 and was hired to work part time as a deposit processor at Fifth Third’s downtown Grand Rapids operation.
He said he learned something at every step along the way — socialization skills, how to pay taxes and how to apply and interview for jobs — but the rotations especially helped prepare him for a job.
His rotations were in loss mitigation, collection disputes, mail room and commercial loans.
“I think I did a good job at all of the rotations. Each one taught me something new,” he said.
He said his current job includes “counting money, finding counterfeit dollar bills and processing coins.”
“I am good at finding counterfeit money,” Jones said. “I learned from Fifth Third how to identify it — and I want to learn more about that, and about foreign currency (such as) pounds, pence, euros and yen.”
He said Project SEARCH gave him confidence he can succeed long-term.
“I’ve learned that there are many opportunities out there, and if I put thought and effort into it, I can succeed,” Jones said.
Brooks said the process of self-discovery does happen organically, but the Project SEARCH teachers, job coaches and employers try to pay attention and help it along.
“As we get to know the students a little better, if there’s one that has an interest in food service, we’ll put them in the bistro for one of their rotations,” she said.
She said often the students who choose Fifth Third for their placement are the ones who want a quiet, desk-job environment.
“A lot of our interns know that’s the kind of job they want after they’re done with Project SEARCH,” she said.
About 100 interns have gone through Fifth Third’s West Michigan Project SEARCH program in the past decade, and Brooks estimates Fifth Third has hired about five of those to work at the bank.
More than 85 percent of the 100 graduates have been placed in jobs in the community after finishing the program.
Fifth Third can accommodate up to 12 students per school year, and the same is true at Spectrum.
Brooks said she has been doing Project SEARCH for nine years, and it never gets old.
“It’s so much fun to watch the students grow in the classroom to the day they have the end-of-year celebration and go out into their jobs in the community,” she said. “There’s nothing more rewarding than the work we do with Project SEARCH and these individuals with disabilities.”
Students interested in learning more or applying for Project SEARCH can contact Cindy Alferink, Project SEARCH coordinator, Hope Network Neuro Rehabilitation, (616) 940-0040, ext. 18176.