This photo was taken at the Governor’s mansion, recognizing all 27 Project SEARCH locations. Contributed photograph.
This photo was taken at the Governor’s mansion, recognizing all 27 Project SEARCH locations. Contributed photograph.
Project SEARCH offers a unique opportunity for individuals with developmental disabilities or, as program instructor Jennifer Varsik likes to say, individuals with “varied abilities.”

Established in 1996 at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Project SEARCH places these individuals into high-turnover, entry-level positions during a nine month internship.

The program gives interns total workplace immersion through three 10-week rotations, focusing on complex, systematic jobs which teach transferable skills and will enable them to secure a job they may not be qualified for otherwise. These skills include “hard skills” such as data entry or cataloging as well as “soft skills’ such as communication and employability.

A Project SEARCH host site must have 250 employees minimum, making the Howard Young Medical Center (HYMC) the best fit for a Northwoods location. There, interns assist with cooking, cleaning and other routine tasks. They may also be placed at One Penny Place, performing similar duties.

Varsik said the training is fairly low-stakes. 

“They just get a chance to make mistakes without any real penalty and learn from their mistakes,” she said.

In addition to hands-on learning, the program involves daily classroom time where interns work on skills necessary to the application process such as creating and updating a resume, cover letter writing and interviewing.

Before each of the three rotations, interns must update their resumes, submit a cover letter and interview for the position. 

Throughout the 10 week rotations, staff members within their respective departments acts as mentors, supplying training and checking in on the interns. 

Varsik and the other Project SEARCH counselors maintain close communication with interns at all times, which is especially important during the first rotation. 

“We really learn about them, what skillsets they have,” Varsik said. “Also, we learn and they learn what they like to do and what they don’t like to do.”



Making a difference

Eric Mikoleit, who now serves as the director of the Lakeland STAR School/Academy, set up Project SEARCH at HYMC in 2016. The program was handed over to Varsik the following year.

“It’s a dream job. It’s a joy job,” she said.

Thanks to Varsik’s passion, the program has continued to grow. 

The current cohort includes seven interns who hail from Minocqua as well as Rhinelander, Sugar Camp, Laona, and Tomahawk.

One of these interns is Michelle Gauger. 

For her first rotation, Michelle was assigned to the Intensive Care Unit, where she carries out housekeeping duties.

Michelle’s mother, Meg Gauger, said her daughter has “blossomed” since the start of the program in September.

“Her communication skills, her social skills are improving,” she said. “I hear she’s saying hello to patients, doctors, nurses, whereas in the past she was very shy, almost introverted around adults.”

Gauger said not only has Project SEARCH helped Michelle with her interpersonal skills, but it has also taught her practical skills like folding laundry and cleaning, all of which she has started to utilize at home.

“It teaches them responsibility, accountability, work skills, which can still be transferred to the home,” she said, explaining the emphasis on transferable skills is key to ensuring the intern’s future career, as well as personal, success. 

“She’s developing stamina too as far as how long she can work and keeping her focus,” Gauger said of her daughter. 

The Project SEARCH internship involves four hour work days, five times a week, for a total of 20 hours. She said this amount of work would have been too extreme for her daughter up until now. 

Since students are only allowed to do the program once, most enroll during their final year of high school. Federal law gives students with developmental disabilities the right to attend high school until they turn 21.

Gauger believes the program is the perfect transition for Michelle, who turns 21 this spring, as her daughter prepares to enter the workforce. 

“I just want her to get a decent paying job,” she said.

The program is currently capped at seven, but Varsik said she hopes to expand the program to include nine or 10 interns each year. 



New partnership

This August, the HYMC Project SEARCH partnered with the Opportunity Development Centers (ODC), an organization that provides employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities.

The ODC is based in central Wisconsin and was already partnered with Project SEARCH sites in Marshfield, Stevens Point, Wisconsin Rapids and Wausau prior to taking on the HYMC program. 

“It was kind of a big leap to come this far up, but we have seen the success of the Project SEARCH program in all of our other sites that we felt we wanted to take this site on as well,” said Ann Lepak, ODC’s director of employment services. 

Throughout the internship, Lepak and another on-site ODC counselor act as additional support, providing interns with basic employability skills and teaching them how to become independent. 

Like Varsik, Lepak said it’s important for them to pay close attention to the types of jobs an intern enjoys. 

“We really get a good understanding of the person, what they’re really good at, what they’re interested in, what they’re not so good at, where they might like to work, things like that,” she said.

Once interns are nearing the end of the program, the ODC will begin reaching out to local employers that they believe could be a good fit. 

“I would call us a walking resume for that individual,” Lepak said.

Lepak said she now has employers contacting the ODC about potential employees at the four other Project SEARCH sites. 

“We’ve been around for a long time and so people do know us, so it’s awesome when businesses start calling us when they have needs for employees,” she said. “I would hope that we get to that up in this area once people get to know us.”

Even after interns graduate and have secured a job, the ODC continues to work alongside them. 

“We support the person and the business to ensure that the business is getting the worker that they had hoped for and that the worker is efficient and as independent as possible and doing as good a job as they possibly can for their employer,” Lepak said. “It becomes a win-win situation.”



A win-win

This idea of a win-win is something Varsik also touts about Project SEARCH. 

“It’s a mutual win-win situation for the host sites,” she said. “One Penny Place — the residents — just love having interns there as do the staff there, so it’s really great.” 

The program’s community benefits were recognized in October by the state as part of an event during National Disability Employment Awareness Month. 

The Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, Wisconsin Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes and First Lady Kathy Evers hosted representatives from all 27 Wisconsin Project SEARCH programs at the Governor’s Mansion.

During the event, Barnes acknowledged the hardworking individuals who had helped the program flourish in the state. 

“I want to thank you for your efforts over the last decade because more than 900 individuals with disabilities across the state have received valuable training through all their participation in Project SEARCH to help guide them in their journey toward employment and economic independence,” he said. “This is a truly remarkable program.”

The HYMC Project SEARCH site sent three representatives, including Lepak, to the state’s capital to accept the recognition.



Continuing to learn

Interns will begin their second 10-week rotation just before Christmas break, which will expose them to new responsibilities and new situations that they must learn to navigate.

Varsik hopes by the time graduation rolls around in May, all seven interns will have gained the skills they need to ensure their future success. 

“Again, that goal is — and it’s a Project SEARCH goal — is gainful employment, minimum of 20 hours per week and competitive employment, so they are actually getting a decent wage” she said. 

For more information on the program, contact Varsik at varsik@lakelandunion.org.

Delaney FitzPatrick may be reached via email at delaney@lakelandtimes.com.