July 14, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

A program designed to help special-needs youth learn valuable job skills has had some unexpected results. In some cases, the students involved with Project SEARCH at two area Embassy Suites have become the teachers.

According to Embassy Suites La Vista director of sales, David Scott, one program participant is even teaching a fellow hotel employee—who is a political refugee from Sudan—how to speak English.

“Brian is teaching Cleo English and Cleo is teaching Brian housekeeping skills,” Scott says. “You just get out of the way and let it happen.”

In March, Embassy Suites Old Market won the Make a Difference Endowment Award issued by Hilton Worldwide. Embassy Suites La Vista won the same award last year.

Both were honored for their Project SEARCH initiatives, an intensive program that pairs hotel staff with area high school students and others age 18 to 21 with special needs, teaching them job-ready skills.

“The goal is to find meaningful employment for these individuals,” Scott says.
Starting in August, students work an average of five hours a day during three 10-week rotations in different departments. They begin with classes related to the work they’ll be doing and then engage in hands-on experience in areas including housekeeping, banquet kitchen, banquet set-up, and restaurant areas. The program continues until graduation in May.

Scott is getting some top-notch job recruits in the process. He points to Kelly, who had such an infectious smile and attitude that he asked her to greet guests in the complimentary breakfast area. “I thought it would be great for guests and I thought it would be great for her,” Scott says. But, she passed—for now—saying she wanted to stay in housekeeping because she liked cleaning so much.

Then there’s Connor. One day, food had arrived by truck and it was all-hands-on-deck so staff could get the food into the freezer. They couldn’t find Connor—he was already at working putting it away on his own.

Since being developed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Project SEARCH has expanded to 275 sites across the country and overseas, including hospitals, retirement centers, banks, zoos and universities. For now, the two Embassy Suites locations are the only Project SEARCH sites in the Omaha area.

The collaboration began in 2012 at the suggestion of the Papillion-La Vista School District. The district provides a special needs teacher and job coaches. Embassy Suites Old Market partners with Omaha Public Schools.

Seven students participated at Embassy Suites La Vista last year and 10 participated this year. The Old Market location had six students its first year. Both hotels expect 10 students in their 2014-15 classes.

“The students are totally involved, totally experiencing the new job field as opposed to isolation on a campus or school, or even coming in for a day and going back,” Scott says. “They live and breathe the organization. They learn side-by-side as interns doing the job on the job.”

Staff members teach classes and assist as job aides. They also are paired with students as one-on-one mentors. Scott estimates Embassy Suites staff have put more than 4,000 hours into Project SEARCH.

The program works. Four interns at Embassy Suites La Vista found jobs last year and up to seven are expected to this year. That’s typical with Project SEARCH. Employment for special needs students averages 15 percent nationally, Scott says. The national rate for those who complete a Project SEARCH program is 60 percent. For those completing a Project SEARCH program in Nebraska it’s 86 percent.

And success sometimes goes beyond finding gainful employment. Scott points to Bruce, a student from the first class who now is planning to move into his own apartment. At the informational meeting for the 2014 class, Scott recalls a parent saying it was the first time she’d felt a sense of future for her son. That he would become a contributor to his community rather than a “burden to the system.”

“I’m elated with these kids,” Scott says. “I see these kids as inspiring.”

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