Stacie Kintigh has worked in special education for 25 years, but her newest endeavor may be one of the most rewarding experiences of her career.

Kintigh is an instructor for Project SEARCH, a new initiative to the Quad-Cities that provides classroom instruction and workplace internships to students with physical and intellectual disabilities in hopes of preparing them for future employment.

"We have tears of joy on a regular basis because watching them mature and grow as young adults is so truly rewarding," Kintigh said.

The initiative is a collaboration between UnityPoint Health—Trinity, Bettendorf School District, North Scott School District, Pleasant Valley School District, Goodwill Industries, Vocational Rehabilitation and Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency.

Eight students, four from Bettendorf and two each from Pleasant Valley and North Scott, are currently taking part in three 10-week rotations at Trinity Bettendorf.

Kintigh said Project SEARCH recommends a minimum of six and maximum of 12 students at a time and just like procuring any job, the students have to go through an application process and interview.

From 8-9 a.m., the students have classroom learning, followed by their scheduled work from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. before ending the day with journal time for the last 30 minutes.

"What I'm getting out of it is job skills, learning how to work with people, learning how to be responsible and be an adult," one student, Sydney Moore,  said.

Nick Browne, a 20-year-old student from Bettendorf, helps clean and restock rooms and loves the experience he is getting at the hospital.

"I think it'll be great because I've been working on building up stamina, working and enjoying fun with other employees," Browne said. "It'll be fun to have a good job."

While there are other resources in the area, Kintigh said she has never seen a program so intense that focuses on the job and independent living skills.

"We don't talk about going to class or training," Kintigh said. "We talk about getting our work done to the highest standards possible and meeting par levels and performance levels in our departments. It's very important we graduate with the skills that are equal to or better than anything that would be expected of us in our workplace."

Kintigh said high school educators struggle to fit the work piece, which she called essential, into the day-to-day schedule.

"The requirements for students are very high," Kintigh said. "We understand the need for core education, but we also believe and have a passion for transitional education for students. This takes all the real things in life and puts them in the workplace."

According to National Core Indicators, only 17 percent of people with disabilities have jobs.

Project SEARCH, which been existence for more than 20 years and has about 400 locations domestically and internationally, boasted a 75.5 percent employment rate for graduates last year.

"Project SEARCH literally turns it on its head," Kintigh said.

About one-third of participants gain employment at their host sites while the remaining two-thirds find employment in their communities.

For the eight students in this year's program, Kintigh said the goal was 100 percent employment.

Although the program is in its inaugural year, North Scott High School assistant principal Frank Wood said it's taken two years to put the pieces in place.

"We took two years to get this program started and it wasn't without trying to find the funding to get this going," Wood said. "With the riverboat grants, we were able to purchase rights for Project SEARCH. which provided us with the instruction, materials and professional development."

While many of the students understand they will require support services in the future, they still want to be contributors to the system, which is why Kintigh said the program wants to help them any way possible to make that happen.

"They want to work so desperately and be contributing members of society and to hear 'I want to work. I want to be independent,' they know that their independence is dependent on their working status," Kintigh said. "I can't put words to it. It's so exciting to see every day when they make those commitments."