MSU becomes work training site for students with disabilities
EAST LANSING — Pushing past a crowd of sleepy-eyed students, Peggie Baker guided her cleaning cart through Holmes Hall. It was her Friday morning work shift.
Five days a week, Baker joins the facilities staff at Michigan State University as part of Spartan Project SEARCH, which debuted this fall. Baker is one of nine local high school students with developmental disabilities who the program pairs with mentors across campus in an effort to give them the skills they need to be successful employees.
Years of helping her parents and grandparents keep their households clean comes in handy, Baker said. “I like cleaning. I’ve been cleaning all my life,” the Stockbridge 20-year-old said.
Of the more than 760,000 people with disabilities between the ages of 18 and 64 living in Michigan in 2014, the latest year for which census data is available, approximately 70% were unemployed in 2014. That’s compared to 25% of working age Michigan residents without disabilities.
Michigan is hoping to close the employment gap between people with and without disabilities with 13 Project SEARCH locations serving 150 students across the state, said Bob Wheaton, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
“Schools and businesses are working together to allow students with disabilities to have work experience in last year of secondary education,” Wheaton said.
The program runs from September to May and sends students to three different placements during that time.
Baker attended Stockbridge High School prior to attending Spartan Project SEARCH full-time. The program is the final stage of her high school education. When she’s done, Baker said she knows exactly who she wants to work for.
“I want to work for MSU,” she said. “Where else would I want to work?”
Baker started cleaning at an early age, helping her parents and grandparents. She learned how to do laundry by age 10, a skill many of the students who walk past her on a daily basis haven’t yet mastered. The opportunity to be active at work and use her cleaning expertise made applying for the job at Holmes an easy decision, Baker said.
Those first few days of working at Holmes were nerve-wracking, Baker said. Fortunately, the staff, including her supervisor Matt Winowiecki, made maneuvering the labyrinth of hallways manageable.
She was worried, but Baker said she, “put on her war paint every day” to appear confident in what she was doing. Her responsibilities include keeping common areas clear, cleaning bathrooms and maintaining the laundry area and stairwells.
Baker has also had work placements with MSU’s culinary services as well as Marshall’s and Sparrow Health Systems.
“I’m used to being a busy bee,” she said.
Spartan Project SEARCH is a collaborative program between MSU and the Ingham ISD. Students who participate come from Ingham school districts and receive a few hours of classroom time to bookend their days, said Nicholas Bond, an instructor for the program.
“The project has been a dream of several people at Ingham ISD and MSU to utilize resources both parties bring to the table,” Bond said. People with special needs can receive school services up to the age of 26, and most of the program’s participants are in their early 20s, Bond said.
The program was made possible by funding from Michigan Rehabilitative Services, which operates under the Michigan Health and Human Services department.