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Ellsworth HS graduate with disability soars through internship

Maddie Olson (left) stands in her scrubs with her supervisor Angie Jensen (right) while working in the surgical ward at River Falls Area Hospital. Submitted photo1 / 4
After Project SEARCH graduation in June, Maddie Olson hopes to get some work in with the Ellsworth school cafeteria before deciding whether or not she'd like to go to college. Here Olson is pictured working during her rotation at the River Falls Hospital cafeteria. Submitted photo2 / 4
Maddie Olson stands between her parents, Melissa and Bryan Olson, during her 2018 Ellsworth High School graduation party. Submitted photo 3 / 4
Some of Maddie Olson's interests lie in athletics outside of her workplace. At state track and field in Steven's Point for Special Olympics, Olson won three gold medals pictured here. Submitted photo 4 / 4

The transition between high school and the adult world—whether that involves the pursuit of a college degree or the workforce—isn't always an easy one for graduates.

But for graduates and those up to the age of 30 with disabilities facing this transition period, there's an opportunity to develop skills and further life education with Project SEARCH.

Madison "Maddie" Olson, a 2018 Ellsworth High School graduate, has been one of seven interns with disabilities this year for Project SEARCH since September 2018.

She serves as one successful example of Project SEARCH's ultimate goal of preparing potential employees with disabilities to integrate into a competitive workforce.

Maddie grew up with autism, but that has never stopped her from maintaining self-advocacy and pursuing fulfilling activities, including the local Project SEARCH's program partnered with the River Falls Area Hospital.

"We've never as a family labeled her, she's Maddie to us," Melissa Olson, Maddie's mother, said. "We expect a lot out of her and she knows that and she expects a lot out of herself, too. Anything that a typical person her age would do, I would expect Maddie to do. She has proven that over and over again."

According to a Project SEARCH instructor Natasha Herum, interns spend time learning in a classroom environment each day being instructed on everything from workplace hygiene to personal budgeting to responding to constructive criticism.

Along with classroom time, interns engage in hands-on learning during different rotations throughout River Falls Area Hospital. These rotations are unique as the interns are allowed to work as "just another employee," Herum said. They are treated as part of the team at the hospital, whether in the cafeteria or in the surgical ward, and are invited to social employee events and are instructed directly by the respective rotation staff at the hospital.

Although Project SEARCH is welcoming of all disabilities and ages between 18-30, there are some limitations for the program candidates.

"If they don't feel they want to work, then it won't be the best program," Herum said. "They must have a desire to work in the community and have to maintain appropriate behavior and social skills."

Personal care is not provided to the interns by the program during the work within the rotations.

Herum said Maddie has gained more than just skills, she's gained personal attributes which will help her succeed in the wider world.

"She was shy and timid and has come out of her shell," Herum said. "Maddie ... can see what she's good at. Everywhere she goes everyone raves about Maddie because she's such a hard worker with a positive attitude."

As her program followed a schedule similar to River Falls School District, Maddie gained experience and developed a range of skills working at three different rotations: the front desk, the surgical ward and the hospital cafeteria.

On June 4 from 3-4 p.m. at the hospital, Maddie will graduate from Project SEARCH and have successfully overcome the challenges which taught her valuable capabilities.

Maddie has specifically excelled at learning how to prioritize and balance multiple tasks, gaining independence at the workplace and learning to problem solve.

"(I've learned) to be open-minded," Maddie said when asked what has been most valuable to her during her internship. "Being more open to different jobs they showed us. I'll be more flexible."

Maddie said she would urge anyone with a disability to apply for Project SEARCH as she believes it helped her, and it would help others.

During her time after graduation, Maddie plans on working at a cafeteria for a school before deciding whether or not she would like to attend Chippewa Valley Technical College for a Surgical Technologist program. She will also continue to work at Common Man Tap and Table, a restaurant in Ellsworth, for which she has worked part-time for the past three years.

More information about the River Falls area Project SEARCH program may be found online on by searching "River Falls School District Project SEARCH."

Rachel Helgeson

Rachel Helgeson

(651) 301-7864