Not Just Another Classroom – Creative Programming Enhances Learning

With the flick of his staff, Samwise the wizard sends rubble hurtling towards his enemies. Leia the ranger draws her sword and slashes at the nearest zombie, sending it flying backwards. Away from the battle, Rogue sneaks into a building where he saw a shadowy figure skulking around only to be surprised by a dagger burying itself in the wall next to him. This isn’t a scene from the newest hit fantasy show. It’s a session of Dungeons and Dragons utilized by Sam Pattison, the Goodwill of Central Iowa Project SEARCH instructor.

Project SEARCH is a work-immersion internship program for adults with disabilities. Developed as a partnership between Goodwill of Central Iowa and Hy-Vee, Project SEARCH offers participants career development opportunities in retail sales, food preparation and customer service. Standard program curriculum is modified to meet the unique needs of each participant.

As many of the participants have never had a job, the course is their introduction to the world of employment. The interns spend a significant portion of their time working within different departments of the grocery store to learn hard skills, and in a classroom setting where they address individual skills and goals.

“The premise of this program is that people with intellectual disabilities have the ability to work anywhere, if proper accommodations are made for them,” Pattison said.

Program participant Tammy at the Hy-Vee Bakery

In the classroom, Sam leads the participants through customized course work and discussions about employability skills. Always looking for new and innovative strategies to reach his interns, Sam’s thoughts turned toward Dungeons and Dragons.

As an avid player in his personal life, Sam shares, “I started to think about the actual social and mental health benefits that come along with a role-playing game. It actually lines up well with group therapy. One person leads the tone of the group, but the real interactions are coming from the group talking with each other. Group therapy is just D&D without all the fun monster slaying.”


Using the popular role-playing game as a teaching method may seems like a stretch to some, but Sam has found that the structure of the game actually enhances the curriculum and drives home some of the overarching themes of the program. The game presents opportunities for each player to practice their emotional intelligence as well as strategic thinking, concepts best learned through first-hand experience.

In the game, the interns role-play as characters they create. Being in character allows them to examine situations and explore emotions from a safe spot, but still in real time. On top of this, computation and problem solving are necessary.

Sam Pattinson, with recent graduate, Derek showcasing the use of Dungeons and Dragons in their Project SEARCH classroom.

In one recent game scenario, the adventurers had to decide if they wanted to let their beloved pet elephant reunite with its mother or if they should keep it. The players worked through the issues as their characters and even though they wanted to keep their in-game pet, they decided the right thing to do would be to let it go. Practicing the concepts of empathy and selflessness through D&D resulted in a meaningful social interaction. In its real-world application, empathy is how people connect with and understand each other. Utilizing and practicing empathy supports providing good customer service as the interns work to see things from a customer’s perspective.

After the classroom portion of training, the interns take what they learned and head out to their departments.  Sam stays nearby, prepared to step in and make minor adjustments, but generally, he prefers to observe the participants and allow them to learn firsthand from the department managers. At the end of their work shifts, the interns reconvene to discuss what went well and what didn’t. This discussion time is a key opportunity to support each other.

“Most of their growth comes from being able to draw on each other,” Pattinson said. “I want them to have their own agency and know that they’re capable of doing what they’re asked.”


Each installment of Project SEARCH lasts about six months, with the store department rotations lasting 10 weeks each. Since its inception, over 90 percent of program graduates have earned employment.

The most recent participants celebrated their completion of the program with a graduation ceremony last Friday, November 1.

“Sam is like the smartest guy on earth. He taught me how to focus, concentrate on customers and be professional,” said Katie, a recent program graduate who has secured an employment opportunity with Hy-Vee. Also graduating last week was Derek, a soft-spoken individual that struggled with communication.

Katie and Derek at their recent graduation celebration.

“Derek was the perfect fit for this program. It allowed him to show, not just tell, what he was capable of and along the way, he’s been able to improve his communication skills with those around him,” Pattinson said.

These sentiments reflect precisely the program’s goals – that graduates leave ready confidentially tackle finding a job and put everything they learned into practice.  

If you know someone who could benefit from the Project SEARCH program, visit the program page on our website or call (515) 265-5323.

Continue Reading

Curiosity That Led To Irresistible Opportunity

Jamie Coulson |

Goodwill Works for Businesses [news release]

Carly Flaws |

Goodwill of Central Iowa Leads the Region in Electronic Recycling Commitment [news release]

Carly Flaws |