As a child, Mionna Smith’s dream was to work with animals when she grew up. Today, the 19-year-old from Fort Stanton in southeast Washington has an administrative role at the Smithsonian Institution’s office of finance and accounting, sorting mail, restocking supply caddies and scanning invoices — no furry creatures in sight.

“I didn’t want to be in an office job,” she said. And yet, when she found out in April that the Smithsonian was offering her a role as an office automation clerk, she was so happy she doubled over with joy at her desk. Her mother, thrilled, cried when Mionna shared the news with her.

Smith is one of seven young adults who graduated from Smithsonian’s Project SEARCH program this week. The year-long internship places high school students and recent graduates with learning and developmental disabilities, such as autism or Down syndrome, at sites like the National Museum of Natural History, the National Postal Museum, and the Office of Protection Services. Depending on where they’re placed, the interns may do archival work, data entry or manual labor — and they can rotate through up to three roles during the year to gain more experience.

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“We want to diversify our workforce,” said Ashley Grady, a senior program specialist at the Smithsonian who runs Project SEARCH at the institution. “We want to hire young men and women with disabilities who want to work and be included equally in society.”

The Smithsonian’s goal is to prepare the interns for full-time or part-time employment afterward, either at the institution or elsewhere. Smith, a part-time employee, works 30 hours per week.

Project SEARCH was founded in 1996 at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center as a school-to-work transition program for young people with disabilities, a population that struggles with finding work. In 2018, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities — physical, intellectual and emotional — was 8 percent compared with 3.7 percent for those without disabilities, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the Brookings Institution reports that only “40 percent of adults with disabilities in their prime working years (ages 25-54) have a job, compared to 79 percent of all prime-age adults.”

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Today, there are over 500 Project SEARCH host sites around the world that offer hands-on job training and classroom instruction to young people with needs. In the D.C. area, they include Embassy Suites and Capitol Hilton, the National Institutes of Health, and Montgomery County Government.

The Smithsonian became a Project SEARCH partner in 2013 and has graduated more than 50 interns from the program since. Twenty-seven of them now work at the institution full time or part time. Zachary Lynch, who was part of the first intern class, works digitizing collection records at the National Museum of Natural History, while Ernest Davis, also from the first class, works in the education department at the National Postal Museum answering visitors’ questions, among other things. Ninety-four percent of the interns admitted to the program at the Smithsonian have completed it.

People with learning and developmental disabilities may face unusual challenges in the workplace, such as understanding social cues, performing multistep tasks, and controlling their impulses, making some employers reluctant to hire them. Even at the Smithsonian, Grady has found that her colleagues can be skeptical.

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“It’s 2019, but there’s still a lot of stigma just around the word ‘disability,’ ” she said.

But that mind-set, she said, fails to recognize the unique strengths that people with disabilities have.

Take Lynch. His former supervisor, Sylvia Orli, an IT and digitization manager at the National Museum of Natural History, recalled that he struggled with many challenges, including speaking too loudly in the office.

“I wasn’t sure how well it was going to go,” Orli said. But as soon as she taught him how to use a scanner, something in him clicked. He digitized thousands of micrographs of pollen samples that year.

Orli, who has a 19-year-old son with autism, has seen her Project SEARCH interns excel at tasks like data entry and digitization. “It’s exceedingly hard to find people who are willing to do this work, and many Project SEARCH interns can digitize fast and completely accurately,” she said.

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Interns Lynch and Smith thrived in Project SEARCH in part because of the support they received throughout the year. Each day begins with an hour-long class taught by Clayton Caden, a special-education instructor from the Ivymount School in Rockville, one of the Smithsonian’s partners in Project SEARCH. Caden covers life and career skills in the class, such as managing a budget, saving money, and email and phone etiquette.

Throughout the course of the internship, the interns work closely with a career coach from SEEC (Seeking Employment, Equality, and Community), another Smithsonian partner that provides career support to the interns. The coach, Curtis John, works with the interns to set weekly goals and helps them navigate problems.

One of Smith’s challenges, for example, was shyness. “I wasn’t a talkative one,” she said. Yet, she was working at the front desk of one of the most trafficked offices at the institution.

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“Being at the front desk requires having a relationship with everyone at the office,” John said. “We created a goal for her to start to open up and to get to learn everyone’s name.”

Smith, who had never worked in an office before, turned to her colleagues for help and guidance. “I just watched them to see how they greet other people, because I never greeted other people like that. They greet people with, like — they have so much energy and excitement.”

Now, Smith participates in the social life of the office, feels comfortable speaking to strangers, and writes notes of inspiration for her colleagues. “You are a very smart and kind person and God put you in this world for a Reason,” she wrote to a supervisor, Norma Myers.

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“It’s nice to see a flower that was closed now blossom,” Myers said. “Now she speaks to us and gives us hugs.”

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The purpose of the program isn’t merely to train the interns in job skills, but also to help them gain a sense of independence and autonomy. They have spent much of their lives hearing what they can’t do rather than what they can, John said.

“A lot of interns are coming from schools where they have someone with them 24/7,” John said. “We ask them, ‘What do you see yourself doing for a career?’ and a lot of the time the answer is ‘custodial work’ because that’s what they’ve been told.”

“We want to reverse the cycle of learned helplessness,” Grady added.

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Technology helps. John and Caden teach the interns to use an app called Work Autonomy, where the interns can create a schedule and checklist of tasks they need to accomplish that day.

John and Caden also work with Grady to place interns in a role that matches their strengths to the institution’s needs. Lynch enjoyed repetitive tasks — so digitizing samples and transcribing labels was perfect for him. Smith, though shy, was a quick learner and natural communicator: Every morning, she arrived first to class and wrote an inspirational quote on the chalkboard. In her current role, she will train other Project SEARCH interns.

She spoke at graduation on June 12. The message she delivered to the graduates? “Stay focused” and “don’t give up,” she said.

Emily Esfahani Smith, a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C., is the author of “The Power of Meaning” and is a community reporter for the Aspen Institute’s Weave: The Social Fabric Project.

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