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Leadership Communications helps disabled high school students

By Erin Timmons

Autism Pensacola is an ally in Project SEARCH.

Autism Pensacola is an ally in Project SEARCH.

The University of West Florida and students participating in a Leadership Communications course this fall semester are focusing their outreach efforts on providing Project SEARCH, a transition program focused on high school students with disabilities, with the technology they need to succeed.

With locations across the country, Project SEARCH teaches students skills that will allow them to be competitive in the job market. Certified teachers and job coaches focus on training students through real-life work experience and career exploration, which includes job shadowing and mentoring opportunities.

UWF is the only university in Florida to host the program and employs students who have graduated from the Project SEARCH program in locations across campus, including the Argo Galley and the library.

Local director for Project SEARCH Tonya Kerchoff said that UWF has embraced Project SEARCH and so have the students on campus.

“Most people set low expectations for the disabled,” Kerchoff said. “UWF has really embraced Project SEARCH. It allows students who face a disability with the opportunity to feel like they are experiencing college while they learn occupational skills, and that’s a great thing.”

Athena Du Pre, professor and director of communication arts graduate programs, chose the nonprofit organization to be the focus of the Leadership Communication course’s project.

Du Pre said the assignment was to, “Make a difference in people’s lives, and learn about leadership while you do it.”

“We met with the Project SEARCH directors the first week of school,” Du Pre said. “I think we all recognized immediately that the people served by Project SEARCH could be us, except by some small chance of fate.

“This isn’t charity work. These young people are our peers. They are talented and energetic, and they deserve a chance. We’re doing this project out of love and respect.”

The project focuses on preparing students to enter the workforce and secure jobs, a difficult task without the resources to adequately prepare students for what will be required of themthe ability to work with technology.

Steven Bestgen, a senior majoring in communications, said that the focus of their outreach efforts was to generate enough financial support through fundraising that would allow for the purchase of laptops, tablets and other devices to meet the program’s technological needs.

“We’re allowing companies or groups to sponsor advertisements that will be on the back of laptops that are purchased and provided to Project SEARCH,” Bestgen said. “Sponsorship levels vary from $250 to $1000, and we’ve had quite a lot of responses so far, so it’s exciting to imagine the impact we’ll be able to have at the end of the semester.”

The Leadership Communications course is also hosting an online auction with items donated by local companies and organizations. All proceeds of the auction, which ends Nov. 26, will go toward purchasing various technological devices to be used by local Project Search students.

Many students participating in the course at UWF have been inspired by their own personal experiences to meet the goal of supplying Project SEARCH with much needed resources.

Jessica Webb, a senior majoring in communication arts specializing in advertising, said her brother, who has Down syndrome, has inspired her in throughout her work with Project SEARCH.

“It’s important for the community to be involved so they can be aware and see the great things people with disabilities can do,” Webb said. “The most rewarding aspect of this experience is knowing that we are reaching out and making a difference.”

Du Pre said she is impressed with the hard work and effort her students are putting in.

“This is such a remarkable group of students,” Du Pre said. “They are giving themselves tirelessly to help others. Their teamwork and talent are incredible.”

Class leader and senior communication arts major Kesha Royster said the greatest impact of the course so far has been the influence she and her fellow peers will be able to have on the life of a student with a disability.

“This is about providing a student with a disability to have the chance at the American dream,” Royster said.

“Many of us take for granted the simple ability to work,” Bestgen said. “If anything, working with Project SEARCH has made me more aware of how deserving we all are, regardless of disability or handicap, to have the ability to contribute to society in a meaningful manner.

These students are so excited and willing to work and gain employment, and I’m proud that I could be a part of that through UWF.”

For students who want to get involved, Du Pre and those participating in the course are challenging students to form groups and gather donations.

For more information on how to get involved with assisting Project SEARCH through the Leadership Communications course, contact team leader Kesha Royster, kmr43@students.uwf.edu.

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