The graduation ceremony began with the usual fanfare until Karen Hjertstedt veered from the traditional script about halfway through her speech.
She was addressing a small class of graduates -- all nine of them seated in the front row of a conference room at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital.
Class of 2018Meet the Project SEARCH graduates: Rachel Bali, Jhon Castillo, Leydi Cortes, Lazaro Cuatzo, Sarah Grippando, Samir Mansuri, Oralis Monroy, Ben Sojka and Dana Struebing
"Always strive to be a better you," she said.
But Hjertstedt wasn't giving one last word of advice to these grads before they strike out on their own. She was speaking of the lessons she learned from a class that overcame more than adolescent growing pains over the past academic year.
"They would persevere until they accomplished the goal at hand, determined to be successful and successful they were," Hjertstedt said.
Last August, the nine were accepted in the hospital's Project SEARCH internship program to advance their job prospects as young adults with disabilities.
Their resumes will now show the skills they developed during three, 10-week internships across the Winfield campus with the support of Hjertstedt, other hospital department heads and job coaches.
That feat was enough cause for celebration. But even before they were awarded certificates of completion, all nine secured jobs with businesses and local governments.
They're not just newly employed. Leydi Cortes approached the podium no longer the shy intern she was at the start of Project SEARCH.
As the class spokeswoman, Cortes was representing the transformation in her fellow graduates when she told the audience she became a "whole new person."
'Make it work'
The typical day for interns begins at 7:45 a.m. with an hourlong classroom session led by Kati Curby, an instructor from a DuPage County special education cooperative called SASED. She teaches the interns about managing their finances, their health and wellness, all the responsibilities that come with adulthood.
"This year we've had a lot of ups and downs," she said. "We had a lot of laughter. We had anxiety, too."
Some of her students who initially made little eye contact have grown socially. One of the interns, Ben Sojka, introduced himself with a self-assured, professional air when visitors stopped by her classroom on a morning in late May when the group was learning about internet safety.
"It hasn't always been easy, but Ben's learned a lot. He really has," Sojka's mom, Lynn, said of her son, who has autism.
Engaging in conversations and multiple-step processes may pose a challenge for the 22-year-old from Lisle. But his internship bosses didn't dwell on any of that.
"People through the entire program were committed to the intern's success," his dad, Ray Sojka, said. "They were very committed ... The whole team, it was 'find a way to make it work.'"
His son, too, was eager to work and mastered the tasks assigned to him in the hospital's linen department by Carlos Perez, a supervisor in hospitality services.
"Ben comes in with a smile every single time," Perez told the graduation gathering.
As Perez showered praise on the new grad -- now an employee at a Morton Arboretum cafe -- Sojka, beaming, looked back to his parents seated four rows behind him. When the ceremony was over, his mom, in tears, was grateful to see that confidence in her son.
"I am proud I have the job at the Morton Arboretum," he said in a class video.
Internships to jobs
Sojka and his peers have flourished as the fourth internship class at Central DuPage since the hospital joined an international network of Project SEARCH sites in 2014. The first opened in 1996 at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.
The co-founder was the head of the emergency department at the Ohio hospital and dealing with turnover in entry-level positions. The idea was to fill those posts by providing job training to people who have developmental disabilities and would otherwise struggle to find work.
At Central DuPage, there's also a symbiotic relationship between interns and department supervisors who feel their absence when the program ends for the summer.
"They're kind of VIPs in our organization," said Stephanie Gregory, the hospital's human resources manager.
The effort relies on a group of community partners with the common goal of transitioning students with special needs from high school to nonseasonal jobs that require at least 16 hours of work a week and pay a competitive wage.
In the Project SEARCH model, Central DuPage serves as the host business, exposing interns to an inclusive workplace and even rejection. They each have to interview for the unpaid internships in areas of interest, receive feedback from their supervisors and complete self-evaluations.
"It's a really nice, safe place for them to learn, make mistakes, grow, celebrate, feel supported," Gregory said.
Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 and West Chicago High School District 94 have been involved since the inception. Special education educators who sit on a selection committee help identify the students ready to move out of a district's traditional transition program into Project SEARCH from the age of 18 until 22.
"Each of our interns come to us in the program at different levels, and we want to customize their experience to meet them where they're at and to help them advance to where they want to go," Gregory said.
State funding allows Lisle-based Parents Alliance Employment Project to assign two to three full-time job coaches who work at Central DuPage during Project SEARCH. Those coaches helped place the nine into internship rotations throughout the hospital and eventually land jobs. They also will help the nine adjust to their new work environment as needed after graduation.
"I think that helps employers feel comfortable with our program and how to get that support," Gregory said.
Over the past four years, Central DuPage has hired 11 Project SEARCH grads who remain employed at the hospital today. But even if interns don't see a future in the world of health care, the skills they build working in a fast-paced hospital -- managing inventory, escorting patients and their families, stocking and preparing hospital rooms with supplies -- translate to jobs in customer service, restaurants and hospitality, among other industries.
Indeed, the nine employers who hired this year's class of interns are Walmart, PDQ restaurant, Herrington Inn and Spa, Hilton Garden Inn, Carol Stream Public Library, Regal Cinemas, West Chicago Park District, Wyndemere Senior Living and the Morton Arboretum.
With a 100 percent employment rate, this year's grads achieved the same milestone set by the Class of 2017. To put that into perspective, 202 program sites from 37 states and three countries were recognized at an annual conference last year for reaching employment rates of at least 70 percent.
"Our goal is for that intern to really be focused on employment ... That is largely why we've been so successful. We're definitely considered a best practice Project SEARCH program, and I believe it is because we are so upfront about what this really is," Gregory said.
To keep that focus, interns lead monthly employment planning meetings to loop in parents and update their families on their progress.
"It's just awesome to see them figure out each of these kids and where their strengths are and try to match them with the internships," Wheaton mom Carolynne Struebing said.
Her daughter, Dana, a self-described "hard worker" who has a motor processing delay, was accepted into Project SEARCH after four years of high school at Wheaton Warrenville South.
"Each week, I've been working a lot, and it's been busy," said the 20-year-old, who spent her third and last internship handling administrative tasks and preparing patients for exams in the hospital's breast health department.
District 200 Special Education Director Sue Waters and school board members celebrated Struebing's work ethic and her new job at a fast-casual restaurant by attending the graduation ceremony with her family.
"You see her pride in just being part of this program," her mom said. "That was the best part."