News Article Details

Aberdeen man with autism gains job skills through Project SEARCH

Aberdeen American News - 5/13/2019

May 12-- May 12--Since he was little, Tom Mohr had one goal: when he was a man, he was going to work.

Now 21, Mohr has had multiple positions around town in a variety of fields and gained real-world experience that helped build his confidence and sharpen his abilities.

That's thanks in part to Project SEARCH, an international program that began nine years ago in Aberdeen. It provides job training for young adults with cognitive or physical disabilities ages 18 to 21 through partners such as Avera St. Luke's Hospital, Northern State University and the Aberdeen Family YMCA.

When students graduate from Project SEARCH, they are equipped with the skills they need to be employed at least 16 hours a week in a paid position, although several students have full-time jobs.

Three students graduated from the program this year, along with Mohr. Their achievements were recognized during a celebration earlier last week at State Street Medical Square, 105 S. State St.

Project SEARCH helped Mohr net a volunteer gig at the Northern Barnett Center in the mornings, where he does janitorial work and cleans up after basketball games.

"He just clicked there," said Mary Mohr, his mother and a speaker at the celebration event. "The coaches are so great to him. Everybody knows him there, and he's so popular. It's so cute."

Recently, Tom Mohr was hired to a paid position as a cleaner at the YMCA, where he works every night.

"He begs to go to work every day," Mary Mohr said. "He likes to be busy 12 hours a day."

Young adults have to apply to be accepted into Project SEARCH, after which they embark on a yearlong internship. Students start in a classroom, where they learn appropriate work behaviors and job etiquette skills. Then they are assigned responsibilities within Avera St. Luke's doing housekeeping, dishwashing or laundry.

Mohr said that when her son tried out dishwashing, he wasn't a fan.

"They (Project SEARCH) were really great because they respected that he didn't like it. They're really good about trying out different jobs and seeing which one fits," she said.

After volunteering at Avera, students widen their search to other job opportunities in the community. Graduates have worked in veterinarian clinics, hospitals, restaurants and more.

Mohr has been proactive about supporting her son ever since he was diagnosed with autism at age 3. She ran an Applied Behavior Analysis program for three years in her home and taught special education in the public school system for seven years.

"If I could have designed a program, it would be Project SEARCH. It is just custom-made for Tom," she said.

She makes sure to partner with the people he works with to make sure she can help Tom if an instructor isn't around.

"Project SEARCH gives him a meaningful life. It gives him dignity. It's what I always wanted for him, to have have a well-rounded life with work, friends, recreation and everything that everybody else wants in life. I wanted to help facilitate that for him," she said. "That's my job as a mom."

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