Project SEARCH program supports Luke AFB interns with disabilities

Luke Air Force Base’s partnership with Western Maricopa Education Center Project SEARCH provides community support through internship opportunities focused on professional development, personal growth and technical skill enhancement.

The nine-month program offers high school graduates ages 18-26, with significant disabilities, an immersive experience where they work side-by-side with Luke Airmen to increase their knowledge and marketable job skills set.

Dennis Parker, Project SEARCH intern, washes a car at the Auto Hobby shop, April 13, 2021, at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. Project SEARCH is a nine-month program, which offers high school graduates with significant disabilities the opportunity to work side-by-side with Luke AFB Airmen to increase their marketable job skills. The Luke AFB and Project SEARCH partnership offers a unique opportunity for Project SEARCH mentors and mentees to enhance their teamwork and partnership. (Courtesy photograph)

As Luke prepares for the internship’s fourth iteration in August, which will pair eight interns with nine work centers, Dennis Parker, Project SEARCH intern, who completed the program in May, said it was an incredible experience that gave him an opportunity for self-improvement.

“My favorite part about working on base was getting to know my mentors and the Airmen,” said Parker. “I also enjoy that I have learned how to be a better employee, workplace performer, and workplace conflict solver.”

“About three years ago the Project SEARCH team presented this program to myself and the 56th Mission Support Group commander [at that time], Col. Robert Sylvester,” said James McCarty, 56th Force Support Squadron Airman & Family Readiness Center flight chief. “We took a look at the program and determined we had credible places around base that could offer the support and work environment that these young people could not only benefit from, but grow into.”

McCarty added that the goal of the program is to take a person who may not otherwise have the chance to work and equip them with tools they need to enhance their self-sustaining capabilities.

Through this career-focused program, interns expand various skill sets such as communication, socialization, and teamwork while simultaneously increasing their confidence and hands-on work experience.

“Project SEARCH is an international program model empowering young adults with significant disabilities to make a successful transition from school to adult life,” said Tiffany MacKenzie, West-MEC Project SEARCH instructor. “Participants will be taught relevant, marketable skills while immersed in the working world, which increases their sense of responsibility and overall quality of life.”

The interns are able to build their overall confidence while simultaneously acquiring valuable employment skills through real work experiences. Participants have interned at various areas around base to include Vehicle Maintenance, Airman & Family Readiness Center, Club Five Six, Falcon Dunes Golf Course, 56th Medical Group pharmacy, Bryant Fitness Center and the Airman’s Attic.

Not only does this program offer interns the unique opportunity to increase their probability of securing meaningful and competitive employment, but they gain an outlet to generate profound connections with Luke AFB members.

Jeffrey Mashburn, Project SEARCH intern, cuts grilled chicken for a salad, March 10, 2021, at Club Five Six, Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. Project SEARCH is a career-focused nine-month program, which allows interns to increase various skill sets such as communication, socialization, and teamwork while simultaneously increasing their confidence and hands-on work experience. Luke AFB has partnered with Project SEARCH for the past three years allowing interns to work side-by-side with U.S. Air Force personnel to build upon their skill sets, which aids the 56th Fighter Wingís efforts of bolstering partnerships with the local community.
(Courtesy photograph)

While the interns are developing their newfound skills, Luke AFB mentors have a unique opportunity to achieve something just as special.

“With this program, there’s actually an intrinsic giveback to the person actually giving,” said McCarty. “We benefit in a very personal and real way as people, by simply helping other people. The cohesion and partnership built through Project SEARCH allows us to see a much broader mission.”

McCarty explained that the program not only affects Luke AFB, but Glendale and the greater Phoenix area due to Project SEARCH members having the ability to obtain employment on and off base post-graduation.

Additionally, through the program, Parker learned how to perform banquet setup at Club Five Six, which ties directly to his goal of gaining employment within the service industry.

“I look forward to making my own money and continuing work on base as a kitchen attendant at Luke’s dining facility,” said Parker. “Project SEARCH has helped me very much. It gave me a pretty good view on learning job skills.”

Just as Project SEARCH aids in supporting members who are looking to improve upon their skill set, it also assists with members’ overall livelihood.

“In Arizona, there are large differences in the number of people with and without disabilities who are employed,” said MacKenzie. “Only a small percentage of people with disabilities are employed.”

MacKenzie added that people with a disability are much more likely to live in poverty than people without disabilities, which highlights the importance of Thunderbolt Nation supporting this organization and its members.

“Luke Air Force Base and West-MEC Project SEARCH have had a partnership for three years and counting,” said MacKenzie. “Luke Air Force Base mentors have made a difference in our program and the lives of our interns. This partnership has allowed our interns to be a part of a community that is bigger than themselves. We look forward to continuing to collaborate and grow our program together.”

For more information on Project SEARCH, contact the 56th Fighter Wing Airman & Family Readiness Center at 623-856-6168, or Tiffany MacKenzie at tiffany.mackenzie@west-mec.org.

Jason Contreras, Project SEARCH intern, prepares cutlery at Club Five Six, Nov. 19, 2020, at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. Project SEARCH offers high school graduates with significant disabilities, ranging from ages 18-26, internship opportunities centered on professional development, personal growth and technical skill enhancement to increase their probability of securing meaningful and competitive employment following completion of the program. Luke AFB has partnered with Project SEARCH for the past three years allowing interns to work side-by-side with U.S. Air Force personnel to build upon their skill sets, which aids the 56th Fighter Wingís efforts of bolstering partnerships with the local community. (Courtesy photograph)

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