Jacob Yelnosky's figure skating career did not get off to a fast start.
Yelnosky, 22, who is diagnosed with Autism, laced up his skates for the first time as a 9-year-old at The Gardens Ice House in Laurel. He planned to take part in a Special Olympics figure skating program, but, as his father John recalls, he never made it onto the ice.
"He wouldn't step through the door," John Yelnosky said.
But Jacob Yelnosky wasn't deterred. He came back the next week — where he made it through the door — and the next, and the next. Earlier this month, Yelnosky's perseverance and years of practice paid off as he skated his way to a gold medal at the Pennsylvania Special Olympics Winter Games.
The medallion draped around Jacob's neck is not the only reward from all those weekly skating sessions.
Yelnosky's father says his son's participation has given him confidence, a desire to please others and a understanding of a job well done – all skills that will help the Marriott's Ridge High School graduate pull off his most difficult trick yet: landing a meaningful job.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 80 percent of adults with disabilities were unemployed in 2013.
Kim McKay, a project manager at the Arc of Howard County – a nonprofit that provides services for people with disabilities, said employment is one of the biggest issues facing people with disabilities, specifically young people like Yelnosky.
That's why the ARC, along with the Howard County Public School System and the Howard County government, launched Project Search last fall, an initiative aimed at giving people such as Yelnosky a better shot at employment.
"We are trying to think beyond the grocery store employee," McKay said. "These students have a lot of skills, and not that there is anything wrong with pushing grocery carts, but you shouldn't be limited to that. We are trying to open business people's minds."
The national program is a high school transition and internship program for students with developmental disabilities, which is defined by Maryland law as a physical or mental impairment that inhibits a person from living independently.
It places 12 interns within a host business for three 10-week rotations during a student's final year in school. It was launched for the first time in Howard County in 2014 – there are eight programs in the state – with the county government serving as the program's first host business.
As one of the program's 12 interns this year, Yelnosky works at the county's Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits. He is one of three program participants that recently graduated from the school system.
McKay, who manages the program for the Arc, said the program fills a void in the community.
"We say these kids are college and career ready, but we spend a lot of time in Howard County focused on the college part, and there are some kids that need more transition work to the career piece," she said. "Project Search fills that niche."
McKay said the students' disabilities range from social and mental impairments to physical and learning disabilities. She said most students register somewhere on the Autism spectrum.
Job duties include administrative work, filing, record keeping, reception and janitorial work. The students are scattered among the county's buildings, including the headquarters, the North Laurel Community Center and the Circuit Courthouse.
She said most of the program's participants struggle with the social components of the workforce, not because particular job tasks are out of reach.
"It's the social piece that keeps them from being employed and staying employed for a long time," she said. "This is a great opportunity for us as job coaches and mentors to work through some of those things with them."
The program is structured so that each day the students have one hour of class time, where they focus on career training skills, and five hours of actual work time. McKay said the program differs from other work study programs.
"Project Search shifts the model of traditional transition where there is lots of classroom time and lots of transportation time and not much actual work time at a work study or a job site," she said. "Project Search kind of turns that on its head."
McKay said a major condition of the program is that the work is real, and not just busy work or special projects created for the students.
"It's about what needs to be done in your department and how can we help," she said. "It needs to be real work that benefits the employer."
So far, the program has been a success for the interns and the county. Yelnosky's supervisors say he has provided real value to the workplace.
"It's not at all any kind of busy work," said Alexandrea Shaw, one of Yelnosky's supervisors and mentors. "This is actual stuff we need done; there is a shortage of employees and he is helping."
Debbie Whalen, an engineering support technician in the department, said Yelnosky came in with the right attitude and skills, and that all they needed to do was teach him the job.
"He's a self-motivator, which I love," Whalen said. "He comes in every morning, sits at his station – most of the time you don't even know he is in – and he is already starting into his job."
County Executive Allan Kittleman, who took office in December, said he has become "a big proponent" of the program since learning about it after taking office.
Kittleman, who honored Yelnosky's Special Olympics achievement with a cake and proclamation last week, said the interns have impressed him with their work ethic and diligence.
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"I'm telling you, if you say, 'Here is a job I want you to do,' boom — they are doing that job, and not so much trying to see if they can get away with doing something else," Kittleman said.
He added: "Sometimes they do it so well, they get things done more quickly then their supervisors think they do. I think most employers would love to have someone like that in their work environment."
While the program appears to be working, success can be measured only after the internship is complete.
"It's all about a job, and job development starts day one," McKay said. "It is not necessarily the goal of Project Search to have interns hired by our host business. Our goal is really competitive employment in the community."
Kittleman agrees that private-sector involvement is the key to the program's success.
"My goal right now is to get the private sector involved," said Kittleman, who included a "call to action" to local businesses on behalf of Project Search in his State of the County address earlier this month.
"Hopefully we can have this expanded because the government is only a certain size, but the private sector has an awful lot of opportunities out there." Kittleman said. "So it is my hope that we can get the private sector folks on board as well. As I continue to go around the county and meeting new business people, this is going to be something that's on my mind when I talk to them."