UMSL faculty member Patricia Kopetz

Patricia Kopetz, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor in Education for Children with Disabilities at UMSL, leads Project SEARCH, an initiative that helps recent high school graduates who have learning challenges transition to the work force. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Patricia Kopetz is a crusader. She’s a relentless and tireless advocate for the empowerment of individuals with disabilities.

For the past five years, Kopetz has thrown her energy behind her position at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. She holds the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professorship of Education for Children with Disabilities. Her professorship, housed in the College of Education, is part of the Des Lee Collaborative Vision in connection with Variety the Children’s Charity of St. Louis.

Kopetz’s latest endeavor, the Project SEARCH high school transition program, is a collaboration with Epworth Children & Family Services in Webster Groves, Mo. Epworth provides services that have helped thousands of children overcome severe emotional and behavioral challenges.

Kopetz learned of Project SEARCH – a national program that provides real-life work experience to help youth with significant disabilities make the transition from school to the work force – when the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provided startup grants for such initiatives in early 2012. After repeatedly reading data from the DESE website that showed individuals with emotional disturbance and autism had the poorest outcomes of all individuals with disabilities, meaning they had the most disheartened futures after high school, she and others approached Epworth for the partnership.

“We realized there was a huge need for something to help transition students with significant learning challenges from school to the work force,” Kopetz says. “We wanted to fulfill that need and offer a place that could help these students learn the skills that help them become more independent and gainfully employed.”

Early in 2012, UMSL partnered with Epworth. That fall, eight Epworth students, ages 17 to 21, who were in their last year of high school, started the yearlong Project SEARCH school-to-work preparation program at UMSL. The students – all of whom were diagnosed on the autism spectrum and with related learning differences – became interns.

The interns partner with UMSL graduate students to learn specific, essential job skills. With the help of the graduate students, each intern applies for a job at various offices and departments throughout the UMSL campus. Once hired, they work 20 hours a week under the supervision of the graduate students and a job coach from Epworth and Vocational Rehabilitation of Missouri.

“Not only is Project SEARCH a wonderful asset to the students from Epworth,” Kopetz says. “But this project gives UMSL graduates in special education a wide variety of experiences and the opportunity to work directly with these individuals with disabilities, their parents, Epworth high school personnel and local agencies as they set up the students’ jobs and see to their needs throughout the program.”

Three graduate students work with Project SEARCH. Nelli Phiri, Emily Durning and Chelsea Davis are in the UMSL master’s of education program in special education, with an emphasis in autism and developmental disabilities.

“UMSL is providing authentic opportunities, and I have witnessed real transformation with some of the interns participating in Project SEARCH,” Phiri says. “Every person regardless of ability, has the potential to learn, grow and become an expert in what they do best; even if what a person does entails mopping the floor, cleaning dishes or folding towels in a laundry.”

With a successful first year of the project nearing its end, Kopetz says she’s excited.

“I’d like to see Project SEARCH grow,” she says. “Graduate students can be benefiting from these valuable learning experiences. The more graduate students we have to support the program, the better equipped we are to provide these interns with a life-altering opportunity that encourages them to grow and thrive.”

This story was originally published in the spring 2013 issue of UMSL Magazine.

Jen Hatton

Jen Hatton