Project SEARCH mobilizes community partnerships to transform systems

By Tracey Millar

With the uncertainties of the pandemic aside, Andrew Kinapen, 19, eagerly seeks a full-time job and the chance to start earning a living. Yet, with an intellectual disability, Andrew could face some barriers.

According to a 2017 Canadian survey on disability, only 59 per cent of working-age adults with disabilities are employed – compared to 80 per cent of those without disabilities. A key enabler for youth is work-based training so that they gain the skills needed for entry-level employment opportunities in today’s workforce.

Enter Project SEARCH: a global school-to-work transition program for youth with intellectual disabilities. On the premise that employment is central to well-being, Project SEARCH prepares high school students for the working world both in the classroom and through hands-on training for 10 months. The program has been immensely successful: about 75 per cent of students find gainful employment within a year of graduation.

Andrew was one of nine Toronto District School Board (TDSB) students selected to participate in the first-ever Project SEARCH program in Toronto, which launched in September 2019. Students are immersed in a host business – the Toronto hosts are Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital and Toronto Rehab-UHN. In the on-site classroom, the TDSB teacher focuses on life skills such as time management and professional communication. Students engage in a series of co-op placements, supported by their teacher and by jobs and skills developers from Community Living Toronto. Over the months, they collectively build a personalized employment plan and, after graduation, Community Living Toronto provides follow-up support to help students secure quality jobs.

Andrew’s first co-op began at the Holland Bloorview Foundation, where he counted cash donations, updated the donor database, prepared information packages and helped with tours. Andrew also worked with the hospital’s client registration team recording visits and collating health equity data.

“I loved working in the Foundation offices and learning about fundraising,” Andrew said. “Everyone at Holland Bloorview has been supportive and helpful as we learn new skills.” Last summer Andrew joined the hospital’s Foundation team as the first recruit from this new talent pool.

Partnerships breed success

Project SEARCH is one of the most successful school-to-work transition programs, beginning first at the prestigious Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 1996 and spreading to more than 600 sites around the world. It landed in Manitoba in 2011, and the program arrived in Toronto and Ontario’s Halton region in 2019 thanks to efforts by ODEN, the Ontario Disability Employment Network.

The program’s inter-organizational partnerships are key to driving meaningful outcomes. In Toronto, that collaboration includes Holland Bloorview, ODEN, Toronto Rehab-UHN, the Toronto District School Board, and Community Living Toronto – with support from the United Way Greater Toronto’s Career Navigator program. All six partners provide leadership for Project SEARCH in the city.

The organizations work together to provide streamlined, personalized support on a skills pathway – and all during the critical, sensitive period when youth with disabilities leave the education system and enter the working world. In disconnected systems young people with complex needs risk falling through the cracks.

Breaking down barriers to improve health outcomes

Despite the global success of Project SEARCH, it has had slow adoption in Canada. If the pandemic is teaching organizations anything, it’s that COVID-19 is a wakeup call for accessible and inclusive workplaces. Fortunately, many organizations in Canada are now starting to understand why inclusion is a business imperative – and the timing couldn’t be better for Project SEARCH to be embraced nationwide.

And what a difference this could make. The transformative program helps young adults with intellectual disabilities live full, healthy, meaningful lives – because that is the power of employment. Though the program has only just begun in Ontario, the benefits are exceeding expectations and the partners are exploring other opportunities for program development, research, workforce planning, and much more.

Meenu Sikand, executive lead, equity, diversity and inclusion at Holland Bloorview, calls Project SEARCH “truly energizing.”

“Not only will Project SEARCH lead to great employment outcomes for our young people, but these students are also an important part of our own diverse organization,” said Sikand. “Modeling inclusive practices benefits our clients, families, staff, volunteers and other students, and the outcomes we are seeing far outpace what we could have imagined.”

Any program that seeks to mobilize community partnerships is challenging, but in the case of Project SEARCH, it is already a proven model that is ready to go. Holland Bloorview and Toronto Rehab-UHN are continuing their role as host sites for the second cohort of students that began this past September.

For hospitals and organizations interested in taking the leap to help transform wellness in this country, please reach out to to learn more about our experience.

Tracey Millar is the chief people and culture officer at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital