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Virtual grad ceremony
With a virtual graduation ceremony, Toronto’s first Project SEARCH celebrated a year of learning and new experiences that will help shape future employment opportunities. (Photo: Courtesy Project SEARCH)

Ten months after nine Project SEARCH students arrived at Toronto Rehab and Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital to begin their final year of high school, they have graduated with the confidence, skillset and on-the-job training to join the workforce.

Project SEARCH is an international transition-to-work program for youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities and this group of Toronto District School Board (TDSB) students is the first graduating class in the city.

"We were drawn to Project SEARCH and this wonderful partnership because we see this as an opportunity to learn from, lead, and transform our broader community," Sue Jewell, Senior Vice President and Executive Lead for Toronto Rehab, said at the program's launch last fall.

Today, she reflects on the past year with a sense of gratitude and optimism for the program's future.

"This year reinforced for all of us what is possible, when we build strong partnerships to support members of our community," says Sue.

"Seeing the confidence the students have developed, along with the marketable business and workplace skills that will help them be more successful in securing future employment opportunities, propels us forward, and we renew our commitment to the program."

This year, daily classroom sessions were held at Toronto Rehab while Holland Bloorview hosted the co-op placements in nutrition, environmental services, and administration.

After an eye-opening year for students and staff alike, the student's achievements culminated on June 23 with a virtual graduation celebration.

Even COVID-19 couldn't slow these students down

"My favourite part about Project SEARCH was the time spent with the staff and my peers," says student Congxiao Wang, 20.

"I learned how to greet people professionally at work, how to use a cash register, make pizza in the cafeteria and how to work with children. I'm looking forward to using what I learned to get a job."

Congxiao's classmate, Andrew, echoes her sentiments.

"I have learned many new skills including preparing for an interview, office computer programs and how to work in an office environment," says student Andrew Kinapen, 19, who has been hired by the Holland Bloorview Foundation as an assistant in stewardship and administration.

"I have really enjoyed meeting new people and working with my colleagues. I will be able to use this experience in all my future work and look forward to working with the Holland Bloorview Foundation team."

Young woman at cash register in cafeteria
“I’m looking forward to using what I learned to get a job,” says student Congxiao Wang, seen on the job at Holland Bloorview’s cafeteria where she learned how to use a cash register and make pizza. (Photo: Courtesy Project SEARCH)

When the pandemic forced the program to pivot and adapt to a virtual platform, the students bid farewell to their co-op jobs and focused on individualized coaching and skill-building, tailored to each of their job aspirations.

"The students showed tremendous adaptability as we moved to daily video meeting learning," says Lisa Cunha de Freitas, Project SEARCH Toronto and TDSB teacher.

"They built skills related to the use of technology and demonstrated responsibility and resilience. With the support of Project SEARCH partner organizations, we were happy to be able to continue building momentum towards employment.

"The students are very excited about graduation and future employment prospects."

The strength of community partnerships

The Project SEARCH model was introduced in Ontario as an innovative best practice by the Ontario Disability Employment Network (ODEN), while United Way Greater Toronto's Career Navigator program funded the employment and developmental service supports.

ODEN and United Way Greater Toronto are also active partners in Project SEARCH, along with a Business Advisory Council whose 11 members inform the training program and network with employers to open doors for graduates.

After graduation, Community Living Toronto's staff will support students and employers in job start-up. Students and staff create a personalized plan together to gain secure and quality employment.

Project SEARCH reflects Toronto Rehab's commitment to improving employment outcomes for patients and Ontarians with disabilities. It's an extension of the LIFEspan program, which provides youth and young adults who have cerebral palsy or an acquired brain injury with a bridge between pediatric and adult rehabilitation services.   

LIFEspan's emphasis is on helping young adults develop skills to manage their own care, navigate the adult system, and become more independent and fully engaged in the community. 

Funding from generous donors and partners helped make the first year of Project SEARCH possible. Toronto Rehab would like to thank our donors, including the Toronto Rehab Foundation, David Coriat and family, Mateo and Chris Liberta and family, Big Slick Children's Charity and Freddie DeGasperis Jr., Sofina Foods Foundation, and the GTA Master Plan fundraiser.

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