PERSONAL JOURNEY: Project Search helps people with disabilities build futures

Springfield woman credits the program for helping her become more confident.

For many people with disabilities, becoming self-sufficient, including living on their own, working and even driving remain out of reach. But for Kirsten Fager of Springfield, all of these things and more have become reality since she connected with the Springfield-Clark Career Technology Center’s (CTC) program – Project Search.

“I grew up in Enon,” Fager said. “I graduated from Greenon High School in 2013 and my mom (who has been a nurse for 20 years) introduced me to Project Search.”

This was in 2013 and Fager’s mother, Shaedra Couch, was trying to think of ways she could help her daughter plan her career and her life. Fager said she loves reading and writing so thought about teaching but had no plans for anything concrete after high school. She also struggled with new and unknown experiences and people.

“I wasn’t really sure what to do or about going to college,” Fager said. “I’m usually very shy around new people.”

Project Search is a collaboration between CTC, the Clark County Board of Disabilities and Opportunities with Ohioans with Disabilities (OOD) and was designed to help high school students and new graduates with disabilities learn job skills and obtain employment. The onsite, transition to work training program is located at Springfield Regional Medical Center (Mercy Health) and has a 94% employment rate.

Fager began the program in August of 2013.

“I started working in the supply chain area,” Fager said. “I took care of picking and delivering and taking orders for patients.”

After a year, Fager officially graduated from the Project Search program and was offered a part-time position in the hospital’s shipping and receiving department. Without prior experience, Fager attributes her success to the year she spent as an intern in the department.

“I didn’t know anything about supplies and delivery, but I learned how to do it,” Fager said. “And now I love this job!”

Fager’s successful transition to regular paid employment has helped her build confidence. She grew confident enough to test for and receive her driver’s license in 2014 and purchase her first car. And she ended up meeting her now husband, Michael Fager, while working at the hospital.

“Michael works in the kitchen at the hospital, and I met him when I would go in to get my meals,” Fager said. “He started talking to me and after a little bit, I started talking back.”

The couple got engaged in October of 2020 and they were married in June of 2021.

According to Angela Clark, the manager of supply chain at Springfield Regional, Fager made a complete transformation since starting the program.

“Kristen’s transformation over the past nine years has been remarkable,” Clark said. “She is now driving, has her own home, and is married. She now even mentors other students in the Project Search program and her responsibilities in her job continue to increase.”

And all of this is just fine with Fager, who said she was so shy in the beginning that she couldn’t look people in the eye or even talk to them.

“My mom told me that I needed to take it day by day,” Fager said. “She told me she knew I could do it and would grow to love it.”

Now 29 years old, Fager is no longer afraid of people she doesn’t know. She not only helps mentor other students in the program but also meets with families interested in Project Search and because of her success, has become an official program ambassador.

Project Search offers a curriculum that not only focuses primarily on building work skills, but also teaches students about technology, workplace safety, preparing for and maintaining employment, social appropriateness, resume writing, travel training and self-advocacy. With the graduating class of 2023, there are now 77 students who have completed the program since it started five years ago. Ten of those graduates are employed at Springfield Regional.

“Project Search really changed me into the person I am today,” Fager said. “I learned new skills like computer work and also learned how to help others. I was so excited and proud of myself when I graduated and my whole family was proud. I would say no matter what, don’t give up for anything. You can set your own goals and one day, you can make them happen!”

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