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Lakeland Health offers new program for students with disabilities

ST. JOSEPH, Mich. - Lakeland Health is opening doors for students with disabilities through a new internship program called Project SEARCH.

Monday marked the end of the inaugural year.

22-year-old Ken Schroder is Lakeland Health’s newest employee in the Central Processing Unit—and he happens to be autistic.

“I honestly think if it wasn’t for this program, I don’t know if he ever would have got a job,” said Ken Fetke, lead instructor for Lakeland Health’s Project SEARCH.

The international program, Project SEARCH, helps students with disabilities transition from high school to the workforce.

Lakeland Health just graduated its first class of seven students—and hired three.

“They’re doing jobs that we would have any other associate do, and they’re given the opportunity to learn on-the-job skills so that they can be employed after the program,” said Lakeland Health Manager, Erin Wright.

They learn these skills over a period of 30 weeks.

Sometimes, they say the students end up schooling the instructors.

“Beginning of the year, I was going to train Ken at his job in central processing, but once we began training, I began to find out in a hurry that Ken was doing the job better than us,” said Fetke.

“I was kind of surprised, I was. I got caught a little faster than he did,” said Project SEARCH graduate, Ken Schroder.

Ken can stack these supplies thanks to Berrien RESA, or Regional Education Service Agency, encouraging Lakeland Health to partner for their communities.

“Everybody has a place in the community. Everybody, I think is employable. It’s just finding the right niche of what they can do. Lakeland hasn’t given these students jobs. They’ve earned it. They’re working right along with peers that have the exact same expectation,” said Berrien RESA Transition Coordinator, Craig Kuhn.

“For someone like me as a teacher, you start seeing how the system is really working and paying off for him. It’s just unbelievable the impact this program has on these students,” said Fetke.

As Ken’s new coworkers congratulate him, he has one thing to say to the folks who let him take that first step.

“I’d like to say thank you to them, especially to Lakeland Health, especially opening their doors up to this program, for people like me, giving them a chance and a job, thank you again to all them,” said Ken.

Michiana is home to two other Project SEARCH sites in La Porte and South Bend.

For more information about Project SEARCH, click here.

For more information about Berrien RESA, click here.

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