High School

Project SEARCH Meets The Positivity Project: Building Character for Tomorrow

By Kendall Rider

Project SEARCH is a vocational training program for individuals with disabilities who are in the last year of transition, ages 18-21.  The program is a partnership between a school district and a host business in the community, and is designed to be a full immersion school to work experience. I am the teacher for this program.

Our host business is a senior living community that provides residents with independent living, assisted living, and memory care. Students in Project SEARCH take on the role of an intern, and staff at the host business provide mentoring, to lead, train and develop the skills necessary for independent living. Making the leap from student to intern can be scary, but having a supportive environment has been key to our success. As students struggle to learn a new task or solve a new problem, they receive so much encouragement, patience, and grace from the residents.

These interactions are the perfect way to enrich my instruction and connect The Positivity Project (P2) content to a meaningful real-life experience. Residents have become role models by naturally demonstrating the skills we are building with the P2 curriculum, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch. 

What I love most about The Positivity Project is how engaging the content is. The videos are relevant, and students look forward to the lessons. I enjoy teaching them.

“Not another video,” said no student ever!  It’s a win-win experience. The material is at my fingertips, and the prep time is almost none. I also appreciate having the flexibility to teach what is appropriate for my group. It’s a ‘cafeteria plan’ resource because I can take what the students need and save the rest for another time.  

I feel blessed that I am able to help students develop skills not only from a vocational perspective but also a personal one. To support them as they try to answer the question, ‘Who am I?’’ not only as a worker but also as an individual on the journey to live a life by design and not default. The Positivity Project helps me do this. Its lessons have guided me and my students throughout the academic year, providing a framework to understand, communicate, and practice the very essence of positive character. It is these lessons and experiences I carried with me as I addressed my wonderful students at their 2023 graduation, which is included below.

Project SEARCH Graduation Speech 2023:

So often, we get stuck at the first step. Perhaps fear or confusion or doubt immobilizes us. Fear of making a mistake. Confusion about which direction to go. Doubt in our ability to be successful. We can only know which path to take by taking that first step. Trusting our intuition. Listening to our heart’s desire.  Creating our own path step by step.

“To unlearn is as hard as TO learn.” Unlearning is the process of continual unfolding. Of letting go of the beliefs, assumptions, and habits that no longer serve us.  It’s about questioning what we think we know and being open to new perspectives.  Today, I’d like to share with you how our Project SEARCH interns are doing this very thing. 

I’d like us all to take a moment to answer this question: Who do you think of when you think of bravery?

Many times, the most courageous acts are those done by everyday, ordinary people. These are not people in positions of power and authority, but people like you, Kathleen, people who choose to be brave in their everyday lives.

Kathleen, bravery isn’t the absence of fear but your ability to move on despite it. Bravery is more than just courage. It requires flexibility, persistence, and resilience. Kathleen, when I think of you, I am reminded that “Courage does not always roar.  Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.” 

Max, you model integrity.  You are honest and humble.  You present yourself genuinely and sincerely.

Max, I saw you… ‘start close in’  the day we were all invited to participate in a special Life Enrichment event, but you chose to stay in your department and work because you knew that if you stayed, you could help a coworker finish their tasks. Max, “The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires, but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively.” 

When I think of integrity in the workplace, Max, I think of you.

It’s been said that  “If you are NOT willing to learn, no one can help you, but if you are determined to learn, no one can stop you.  

Andy, you have shown us that with extraordinary perseverance, all things are possible. You complete what you start despite obstacles, and you never give up. You’ve learned that trash bags are a beast … right?  They are slippery and hard to open. We are not even sure which end is up, and they fall over all the time!  Andy, you’ve got that figured out now, and I have to wonder…what role did your effort play in your success?  Trash bags are no longer a source of frustration but now a source of accomplishment and pride”

Andy, YOU are unstoppable! 

When I think of determination and enthusiasm, James, I think of you. “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” 

In many ways, the lived experience that we call Project SEARCH has challenged you to grow.  You’ve become a more flexible thinker, and with your curiosity, innate love of learning, sense of fun, and your desire to be of service, even the most mundane task, such as dishwashing, has become interesting and added richness to your experience. James, your future is not determined by the stars, but by your own efforts and a little bit of sweat.

Kindness begins with the understanding that we all struggle. I’d like us all to take a moment to think about the impact of kindness in our own lives. Imagine a world where you succeed by being nice. Where we all pay it forward and where people look out for each other. It all starts with an act. 

Lori, when I think of kindness, I think of you.  

We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee. Lori, you are dedicated to kindness and never too busy to help out a resident, a teammate or classmate. “Kind words can be short and easy to speak but their echoes are truly endless,” and it is easy to see that you enjoy doing good deeds for other people.

We all know that “Success is not final and failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts. ”Resilience isn’t something that just happens to us.  Persistence and resilience only come from having been given the chance to work through difficult problems.

Michael, you have shared that it is challenging for you when your schedule changes.  You get triggered and feel stuck.  I have to wonder, when you think about this thing that you are unhappy about…is it actually hard to change or is it simply hard to have the courage to change it?

I’ve seen you tackle the tough stuff Michael. You’ve learned that doing the hardest thing first is a good strategy and that getting right to work is always your best choice.

Over the course of this year, you’ve fostered a resilient mindset by removing the focus from yourself and shifting it to connection and compassion for others.  I think of residents, Dean, Kenny, Irene and most recently Ted.  They made you feel needed and it mattered to you that they saw you in a good mood and that they were comfortable around you.  

Michael, things change when you do. 

Remember that every day, you have a choice, and how you see the world will determine the world you see.  

Change is hard but it becomes easier once we acknowledge that it’s harder to avoid change than it is to embrace it. Change breeds the discomfort we get from leaving what we know behind on our way to the unknown.   We dig in our heels, bury our head in the sand, and hope the need to change will magically go away.  But we all know that it doesn’t.

Robert, working in the coffee shop was your test.  You were taught procedures and given a detailed task sheet.  You were expected to follow directions the way they were given but you had a strong desire to do things your own way. Knowing that practice makes perfect we developed an audit system.  First, we checked your work but eventually Robert, you trusted yourself enough to do your own audit and hold yourself accountable and you know what? … your work had never been better. 

Robert, please remember the value of the trust others have in you is far beyond anything that can be measured because it brings along with it limitless opportunities and endless possibilities.  “Always do what is right and let the consequence follow.”

In closing, I would like to share a simple yet profoundly impactful lesson from Admiral William H. McRaven.

He said: “If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter… And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.”

Project SEARCH Graduates, I want to thank you. Your courage, integrity, and perseverance. Your determination and enthusiasm, kindness, resilience, and accountability…have inspired us more than you will ever know. 

Kendall Rider
Project SEARCH Teacher

Kendall Rider is located in Omaha, Nebraska. She works with young adults in their last year of public education, ages 18 to 21, in a high school transition program that provides vocational training and education to individuals with disabilities, intended to lead to competitive employment in the community. She is passionate and deeply moved by issues and ideas that challenge the world and drawn to and captivated by the dilemmas and potentials of the young adults who come into her class each day.