You’ll find interns and graduates of the nationwide Project SEARCH program in hospitals and other workplaces across the state, hard at work in fledgling careers. The program aims to put young adults with disabilities into business settings and give them the skills and independence to move on to professional careers after high school. Wisconsin started the program in the 2008-09 school year and has now served 485 young people, with plans to expand from 17 to 27 sites across the state by the end of the 2017-18 school year.
Rachel Tracosas, an administrative assistant at the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, graduated from Project SEARCH in August 2016. In this edited transcript, she talks about how the program has changed her life.
Tell me about your Project SEARCH internships.
I had three different rotations. The first one was working at the veterans’ hospital, where I helped prepare packets about diabetes and sat in on classes on first aid and CPR. I got to help teach a lot of those classes, which was really interesting. My second internship was at UW Hospital on the patient floor. I helped get the medicine ready for the patients who needed it. Then I worked in the mailroom there and got the mail ready and sorted. My final one was at the American Family Children’s Hospital, where I got all the medicine ready for pediatric patients.
What did you like about those internships?
At the university hospital and the pediatric hospital, I worked behind the scenes. Not a lot of patients get to see how their medicine is prepared, who picks it and all that. That was the thrilling part. And it was nice giving back to the community that has done so much for me already.
What was your background?
Before coming into Project SEARCH, I was in California in a special needs school where, to be honest, it wasn’t the best experience. I was bullied quite a bit. It was a school for autistic kids and I’m on the spectrum, so it wasn’t really that much of a reassurance.
What was different about what you were able to do in Madison and with Project SEARCH?
It definitely made me more independent. In California, it takes so long to get around and my parents had to drive me everywhere. But here, I live on my own. I go to work every day independently.
What would life be like without this program. Do you think you could have done it on your own?
Not really. Part of me does, but another part of me second-guesses myself. Knowing I’m working here is a big stepping stone. It’s nice to know that Project SEARCH helped me get this far.
It sounds as though independence is the goal. It definitely is. That’s what a lot of families want for their child—to be independent. And I’ve successfully reached a goal my family set for me.
What do they think about all this?
They think it is amazing. They were really happy when I got into Project SEARCH and when I moved to my apartment. They’re really happy with this job. I tell them how great I’m doing and they’re so proud of me.
Do you ever stop and look around and say, “Look what I’ve done”?
Definitely, I just wake up every morning and am like, “Wow, I can’t believe I made it through another work week, another year, everything.”
What would you tell the governor or legislators as they consider the program’s future?
They should know that Project SEARCH is a great program and it helps people be independent and gives them courage. If they were to expand it, that would be amazing.
Jessica Arp is assistant news director and chief political reporter for WISC-TV.