Hilton gives ProjectSEARCH a hand
By Patrick O’Malley
Staff writer email@example.com Twitter:@PKOmaly
GALLUP — The Hilton Garden Inn has signed on as the first host business for the Gallup division of ProjectSEARCH, a yearlong internship for graduating high school students with mental disabilities.
Early in the summer, local ProjectSEARCH director Eulalia Gonzalez was reaching out to businesses in the area that would be open to the internship program. At the time she said that they weren’t “getting a great response;” however, after presenting the idea to the management at Hilton, they were on board.
Representatives from the project, along with Gallup McKinley County School District administrators, gave an overview for parents at the Hilton Tuesday. They answered questions about transportation, eligibility and the daily life of the internship. For the first few months transportation is provided for the students. After this they either train one of the students to run a carpool, or they teach them how to use public transportation. The purpose of this is so that if they are hired, they will know how to use regular transportation.
The goal is to essentially teach the students how to become full-time, paid employees who can work as well or better than any other citizen. For the first year of the project, only students who are ages 18 to 21 are eligible; however, Gonzalez said that they are likely to widen the age range with future internships.
Initially the local ProjectSEARCH reps were having a hard time finding a business that was large enough to accommodate the internship. The host business must have at least 200 employees with multiple jobs that students can complete for and eventually develop careers in. During the first year, 10 interns go through three different training stages with a focus on different jobs. Founder Erin Riehle, who was at the meeting, said that the students have absolute liberty to ultimately decide which job they would like to do.
“We’re not going to make them do something they hate; it depends on what they want to be,” said Riehle. The project has hundreds of different sites all around the globe, with a 73 percent employment rate after the internship.
According to Riehle, the state of New Mexico had a grant opportunity for anyone who wanted to start a second site, but she was nervous that notice was given too late.
“I have to say Lali pulled it together — her team came down to Albuquerque, we were nervous trying to pull together something really hard in a short amount of time,” said Riehle. “It’s all due to Lali’s leadership, and the fact that she pulled a great team together.”
ProjectSEARCH started at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 1996, where Riehle worked as a nurse and director of the emergency department. Riehle wanted to find a way to not only train people with disabilities to join the workforce, but by doing so train the community on how to accept people with disabilities as equal employees. Gallup is the second location in New Mexico, with the first being the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Gonzalez said that the Hilton’s general manager was excited to have the group work with them, and they were looking at adopting the program in more hotels.
Eulalia Gonzales, lead coordinator for Services for Exceptional Students, leads a conference on ProjectSEARCH at the Hilton Garden Inn Hotel in Gallup Tuesday.