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Partnership creates internships at Kish Hospital for people with special needs

January 19, 2019

Donna Larson, assistant principal at DeKalb High School, has seen first-hand what people with special needs can do – when given the opportunity.

A new opportunity has come to the fore, thanks to a partnership between DeKalb School District 428, Northwestern Medicine and RAMP – a nonprofit agency that helps such community members with disabilities work and be more active. Starting in the 2019-20 school year, as many as 12 people in special-needs programs will work as interns at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital through Project SEARCH.

An informational meeting will be at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the lower-level conference room at the hospital, 1 Kish Hospital Drive in DeKalb, for those who are wondering whether an internship could be a good fit.

“I can’t put to words how excited I am,” said Jon Huffstutler, a social worker with District 428 who works with not only students in ninth through 12th grade, but those between ages 18 and 21 who benefit from government-funded public school transition programs.

But what about when they age out of those programs at 22?

“A lot of the students just need an opportunity and a chance,” he said.

Northwestern Medicine already has Project SEARCH at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, and a similar adult program at Delnor Hospital in Geneva. Stephanie Gregory, the manager of said programs for Northwestern, said THAT in the past couple of years, each and every one of the graduates from Central DuPage haS been placed in regular, paying jobs – whether at the hospital or in similar lines of work, such as other health care organizations or hotels and the hospitality industry.

Larson said that hits home. She was a special education teacher and has advanced in her career to further her students’ opportunities.

“I knew it would be a way to keep the bus moving,” she said.

District 428 and RAMP have worked with school districts throughout the county to encourage youngsters with upside to apply. Once an intern is accepted, whether they’re 18 or 21, they begin a one-year internship that concludes their transition period.

Gregory said beyond the hard skills interns develop, they learn interpersonal skills that make them more valuable in the workforce.

“Their confidence just blossoms,” she said.

She said after three 10-week internship periods, the goal is to have interns placed in jobs by the time of their natural high school graduation, but that there’s a cushion of 90 days afterward to find a fit.

And then there are the graduation stories.

“To see them stand up where they’re going to be working, and see that sense of accomplishment, there’s nothing better,” Gregory said.

She said graduates from the existing programs will be at Tuesday’s share their experiences.

While the internships are geared more toward mid- to high-functioning people with disabilities, Larson said we should never underestimate what people are capable of, when given the opportunity.

Call Larson at the high school, 815-754-2100, or the district’s director of special education, Christy Meyer, at the education center at 815-754-2350, for information.