How Student Interns are Fighting for Accessible PPE

By Sara Porcaro | Aug 12, 2020
Skills for Rhode Island's Future, SkillsRI, DLT, Government, Internship, IDD, Disabilities, Summer Innovation Challenge, PPE, COVID-19

With recent graduates facing the dilemma of applying for jobs with few connections and little work experience, it's a struggle, and soon-to-be college students are beginning to look ahead to see what they need post-graduate to succeed. That's why Skills for Rhode Island's Future (SkillsRI) is there to help students find internship and work experience to help them prepare for their careers, build their network, and develop their resume. And now, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the quick-thinking teams at SkillsRI have created a wholly revised internship experience for the summer of 2020: the Summer Innovation Challenge.

PrepareRI Reimagined: The COVID-19 Summer Innovation Challenge

Because of the pandemic, SkillsRI's original in-person model for over 450 high school students became a virtual model that went in an entirely different direction. In order to maintain safe social distance between participants and still provide real-life, hands-on experience, the program instead paired applicants in groups to create their own mini-enterprises. These mini-enterprises would then take on the Summer Innovation Challenge, creating a trial business that would design, manufacture, promote, and sell affordable and accessible Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to front-line professionals and community members.
"Our economy is in the midst of a massive transformation, and as we move toward an increasingly digital community, new ways of work are emerging across the country," says SkillsRI Executive Director Nina Pande. "My hope is that this virtual format will help equip our future workforce with the skills needed to thrive in this new, digital landscape and challenge them to think critically as they help us build sustainable solutions for a more resilient future."
To accomplish this, the students are sponsored by SkillsRI's employment partners. Professionals from these local agencies and businesses then act as Businesses Coaches, Mentors, Industry Experts, and Employer Sponsors to guide the groups in creating stable, fully-functional enterprises and viable products. One example is the MyFit Mask from Perspectives-sponsored enterprise HOPE Solutions RI, the group's name an acronym for Help Others Protect Everyone. Whichever group wins the Summer Innovation Challenge, will receive $5,000 per intern to put towards their future tuition and other school costs.
"These students are amazing," says Perspectives COO Kim Einloth, who works alongside CEO Judy Niedbala and Training Co-Director PJ Harder as Mentors for the students to teach them work-life balance, time management, and other soft skills necessary for running an enterprise. "We're so impressed with their drive, innovation, and creativity!"
Senior Director Brenda Verdi is working with them as a Business Coach, where she guides students in completing weekly challenges, developing their business plans, and creating prototypes of their project: a mask accessible to all members of the community, including individuals with disabilities and members of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community, which they consult with Peer Navigator Deanne Gagne and Director of Intake and Admissions Danielle Loughlin as the program's Industry Experts, and Nurse Laurie Morgan as the Employer Sponsor.
"I'm really enjoying my time with the interns," says Brenda. "They're energized, polite, tech-savvy, and so good at managing their platforms. It's been a lot of fun to work with them."

Stepping Up to the Plate: Leaders of the Future

"I've learned more in these past four weeks than I have in my entire life," says one intern, the Marketing Department's Chief Operating Officer Sarah. "You get so much more hands-on experience here than in the classroom."
Sarah works in HOPE's marketing department with Alyssa and Liz, where they coordinate social media calendars, practice business-to-business marketing techniques by collaborating with other organizations, and working with the rest of the agency to contribute ideas to the mask design and communicate those ideas to their audience. Where they were once preparing for internships at places like summer camps and agency offices, they are now in control of their own department and making incredible professional strides.
"It really takes every person, in every department, to make this happen, and we're learning the flow of work between every department in a corporation," Liz notes. "It's a great learning experience, and I feel lucky that I got to be a part of this."
Along with invaluable work experience, the interns are also learning more about their own interests strengths, and potential. Students who previously felt unsure of what they wanted to do in college, knowing that they were interested in topics like art and media, marine biology, or pharmacy, have come to appreciate and enjoy the different aspects of the roles they're currently in--be it marketing, engineering, or finance. For example, the agency's CEO, Michelle, dreams of becoming a doctor and one day owning her own practice, and the confidence and leadership skills she's developed with Perspectives have only ignited her ambition.
"I pushed myself to apply for CEO, and I was so nervous to do it, but I'm super proud of myself for doing it, and I've gotten more comfortable speaking and presenting in front of others," Michelle says. "I didn't know what this program would be about, but I love it; this is exactly where I was meant to be this summer."
Other departments, like Research and Development, have more participants to split the work. With ten members, this department breaks down the process of researching materials and designing the mask prototype, all while communicating the cost of those materials to the Finance Department, who keeps the rest of the agency up to date on the budget and fiscal health of the enterprise. Chief Financial Officer Tyler works with his team to fill out financial requests, log expenses, and make purchases for things like their website's domain and development with the $5,000 that SkillsRI gave each group to complete their project with.
For these interns living in the digital age, the sky is the limit--especially when they have the opportunity to show their incredible creativity, drive, and talent within programs like the Summer Innovation Challenge. In just seven weeks, these students have become not only friends, but a tight-knit, dedicated team with strong communication and personal accountability. They're proving with every day just what one can accomplish when given the space to prove their skills, and we're wishing them the best in their future educational and career pursuits!


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