This article was originally published in "In the Loop."
Two years ago, Jakob Erickson says his world and his dreams were much smaller. Jakob, then a junior in high school, spent most of his free time at home with his family. At school, he went out of his way not to make friends. When he thought about life after graduation, Jakob tells us he wasn't sure what he would do and imagined working "in a fast food place or supermarket."
What a difference a year makes. Specifically, a year in the Project SEARCH High School Transition Program. The program helps young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities gain the skills needed to enter the workforce. Jakob, who has autism spectrum disorder, was part of the first group of interns at Mayo Clinic and says the program has had a profound impact on his life.
"Jakob began Project SEARCH with limited social skills and low self-esteem," Nancy Joyce tells us. As a Project SEARCH instructor at Mayo Clinic, Joyce worked closely with Jakob from the time he interviewed for the program. Over the course of the year, she says she watched his social skills and confidence increase.
Jakob noticed the changes in himself, as well. His first internship, in Environmental Services, involved cleaning public spaces in the Mayo and Gonda buildings in Rochester. "At first, I was really nervous and would try to hide," from people walking by, Jakob says. But over time, he became more comfortable. And by the time he finished the program, Jakob was chatting and joking with his coworkers.
"It's like he was in a cocoon, and now the butterfly has emerged," says Jakob's grandmother Renee Anderson. "His vision of what's possible has changed." She credits the change to Joyce and the rest of the Project SEARCH staff. "They spent so much time learning what made Jake and the other interns tick," Anderson tells us. "And they made sure they knew, right from the beginning of the program, that they had skills to offer the world."
That's something Jakob himself wasn't always sure of. "I used to worry if I would ever be able to get a job," he tells us. "I wondered what I could do, and if anyone would hire me."
He got the answer to that question last summer, when he was hired as an Environmental Services technician in the Human Cellular Therapy Laboratory at Mayo. "It's a 'clean lab,' so everything has to be cleaned to certain specifications," Jakob tells us. That's work that plays to his strengths, says Anderson, who was "ecstatic" when Jakob told her about the job offer. "He's meticulous and very detail-oriented," she tells us. "It's the perfect job for him."
Jakob agrees. He loves his work, his paycheck, and knowing he's making a difference. "One of the Mayo brothers said no job is inferior, and I've come to realize that if I didn't clean, the other people in the lab couldn't get their work done," he tells us. "Even though it seems small when you're just cleaning, the cells they're studying may one day cure cancer. What I do has a domino effect."