Former interns with disabilities land jobs through special employment program

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) - A La Crosse program is seeing the benefits of helping students with disabilities develop job skills. Half of the members of the first graduating class from Project Search are now employed. 

Out of the four students who have jobs, three are working for Gundersen Health System. In some cases, they have turned their Project Search internships into jobs. 

Reggie Hesselberg-Linse is one of 130 employees at Gundersen Health System's food services department. 

"It gets super busy around lunch time, and also, it gets busy around 1 and 2 [p.m]," said Hesselberg-Linse, a former Project Search participant.  

His favorite part of the job is the dishwashing machine.

"It's really interesting to put stuff through the machine and see how it works," Hesselberg-Linse said. 

While he really enjoys this role now, his supervisor said that wasn't always the case. 

"He really learned how to work, 'cause working wasn't his favorite thing when he first got here," said Barb Watunya, clinical manager of the food service department at Gundersen.

Hesselberg-Linse worked in the department as an intern for five hours, five days a week, through Project Search.

"He did a lot of food prep and helped other employees with their work so he was learning aspects of each of the jobs," Watunya said.  

When Hesselberg-Linse wasn't in the cafeteria, he was inside the classroom, continuing his training. 

"This is where they get the vocational skills training-- where we focus very heavily on learning soft skills," said Laura Anderson, instructor for Project Search. 

Anderson helped the 18- to 21-year-old students work on their resumes and learn about the application process. 

"All of those employment kinds of skills that other people might be able to develop more naturally," Anderson said. 

Hesselberg-Linse said he's learned a lot through the nine-month-long internship and, now, through his job. 

"I learned how to keep focused and do independent stuff," Hesselberg-Linse said.

He wasn't the only one in the department who learned something new. His co-workers have gained a different perspective through the program.

"It helped us look at everybody's abilities, rather than their disabilities, and to really focus on what they can do and be their best," Watunya said.  

Eleven students will be joining Project Search in September. Next year's class will meet each other on Thursday during a meet and greet picnic at Gundersen. Hesselberg-Linse hopes the incoming class will make the most of the opportunity. 

"When I think back to Project Search, I'm like, 'Dang, they really helped me really accomplish my goals,'" he said. 

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