Of the many positive stories, a heartland story at Embassy Suites Omaha-La Vista stands out, as does it’s passionate leader David Scott. David is a highly charismatic immigrant from Australia who has been showcasing the American values of opportunity at the hotel where he plays a leading role. As he put it, “Hiring people with disabilities is just simply great for business!” Indeed, the Embassy Suites Omaha-La Vista in Nebraska is the only hotel property to have achieved the #1 ranking for quality, service and guest satisfaction three times. Determined to continue this trend of achievement, management was faced with the question: how do we keep this momentum going? Their answer came to them when they were approached by their local school district to be a partner as a Project SEARCH host site.
Project SEARCH is an internship program for transitioning students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Students are immersed in the workplace where they participate in three 10-week rotations to learn transferable job skills and explore career options. Initiated at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 1997 as a way to fill high-turnover positions, while, at the same time, helping young people with disabilities prepare for adult life, Project SEARCH has since grown to nearly 300 host sites in 40 states and four countries.
With only two hotel programs in 2012, hospitality is a relatively new industry for Project SEARCH. Approximately 60% of the host businesses today are hospitals or other health care organizations – which is natural considering the program originally began at a hospital.
The Embassy Suites Omaha-La Vista, along with its sister properties in other parts of Nebraska, have hosted Project SEARCH sites now for two years and have won the Embassy Suites brand’s “Make a Difference” Award twice, which is centered around community service. The win demonstrated a great amount of respect and recognition for the program, and the hotel staff was particularly proud of the award.
Other Embassy Suites properties are seeing the difference the program can make to the students, staff and guest experience. In 2014-15, the number of Embassy Suites properties hosting Project SEARCH programs will double to six hotels.
While still maintaining the highest brand standards, the staff at Embassy Suites Omaha-La Vista have found an experience greater then winning an award: the act of making a difference. At the time of graduation in 2014, all 10 of the students in the program had received permanent employment. The staff and managers of the Embassy Suites Omaha-La Vista attended the graduation ceremony and were able to experience first-hand the difference they had made in these students’ lives. They had guided, mentored, and instructed these students, and have helped shape them into respectable candidates for permanent employment.
The rate of employment for graduating students with disabilities not participating in a Project SEARCH program is typically around 30%, and for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, the rate is as low as 4-12%. The sole measure of success for Project SEARCH is achieving meaningful competitive employment for program participants within the first 12 months following graduation. The national average for all Project SEARCH programs sites is 65% employment outcomes.
SEARCH graduate Bruce Peoples is an example of this success at Project SEARCH. Peoples works full-time in the banquet department at the Embassy Suites Hotel and Conference Center in Omaha-La Vista, Nebraska. He helps set up and tear down corporate meetings, wedding receptions, gala fund raisers, exhibitions and a myriad other events. Recently he bought a car with the money he had earned working at the hotel after obtaining his drivers license. Working at the Embassy Suites Hotel instilled a strong confidence in Peoples. He was proud of both accomplishments and made sure to share the news with his fellow staff members at the hotel.
Peoples’ impact on the staff and guests at Embassy Suites and his fellow Project SEARCH students was not something that was anticipated. The original focus of the staff during the SEARCH intern’s time at Embassy Suites was to provide them with appropriate instruction and guidance about the hotel business so they could eventually achieve competitive employment in this field. While the focus was for the interns to grow as prospective employees, the staff ended up growing as people. They were now exposed to individuals with disabilities and they discovered all the things they could do, their positive attitude, desire and gratitude to be at work. The interns had low sick days, were always on time and if shown proper instruction, could work as well as the regular staff. The hotel soon noticed a level of comfort the staff had with SEARCH interns. The interns and graduate employees were known by name as individuals and not just “people with disabilities.” This experienced perspective extended to the guests. The Embassy Suites openly informs the guests of the program, encouraging the guests to engage with the Project SEARCH interns. They too discover their abilities and they too get to know them as individuals.
Bruce was one of the stars of a new documentary film about the success of the Project SEARCH model and how it fits into a hotel environment. The title of the film is “Work Their Best” which is based on a quote from Bruce’s filmed interview when he shared his advice with prospective employers about hiring people with ASD. He said, “Let them work their best. That would be great for them and they will be grateful for you.” The program was also recently visited by the Governor of Nebraska, Dave Heineman. Gov. Heineman is also interested in better opportunities and outcomes for his constituents with disabilities. With the new passage of the WIOA law the roles of governors is only increasing on these issues.
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