Staff Spotlight: Heather Dietrich

Jan. 25, 2024
Heather Dietrich, a woman with long brown hair with blonde highlights and wearing a blue top

Please introduce yourself and talk about the work you do at the Center. 

My name is Heather Dietrich, and I am the Project SEARCH Arizona Statewide Coordinator and Employment First Liaison with the Sonoran Center for Excellence in Disabilities.

Can you tell us a little more about Project SEARCH?

Project SEARCH partners education agencies with employers, to offer a nine-month unpaid internship to high school students [with disabilities] with the goal of employment training to secure competitive, integrated employment upon graduation.

How long has the project been going for?

Project SEARCH began in 1996 with Erin Riehle and Susie Rutkowski at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. It has since grown to be an international organization with 717 sites across 11 countries. I believe the newest site is in Iceland.

So it’s not just in Arizona, but all around the world! 

It sure is. We have 7 sites currently in Arizona and are always looking to expand. 

What are some of the sites that these students can work at and some of the skills they can learn?

We look for employers that have multiple pathways for career opportunities. For example, hospitals are very common for us to partner with. That’s because there are so many different opportunities: You can work in the cafeteria, environmental services, pharmacy and building maintenance to name a few. Large hotels and resorts are another great example of employers with various career pathways. Interns can learn hard skills like sterilizing surgical instruments, stocking medical supplies, or housekeeping. The tasks are almost limitless. Simultaneously, the interns also learn soft skills that are transferable to any job, such as interpersonal communication, punctuality, and teamwork. It’s amazing! The whole goal for Project SEARCH is competitive, integrated employment and it's been very successful. 

For some who might not be aware, what do you mean by integrated employment?

Integrated employment is the idea that individuals of ALL abilities work together in the same setting. Neurodiverse individuals would start at the same pay range, with the same benefits, and equally eligible to receive promotions or move within the organization. In other words, they are treated equally to non-disabled peers.

We each have different strengths, we have different perspectives, and it all comes together for the good of society, our communities, and our employers. That’s what makes us strong. 

Could you talk a little about Employment First?

Employment first is a national initiative that supports competitive, integrated employment. It’s an idea that all individuals, regardless of abilities, can and should work. We’ve put together an action committee that promotes change and creates opportunities for pathways to employment for neurodiverse individuals whose goal is achieving meaningful employment and economic independence. 

Any new developments in Employment First recently?

Our partners have hosted many webinars for neurodiverse individuals and their family members to help planning for employment opportunities. We have created flyers that promote different opportunities, such as training for professionals and employment training for individuals with cognitive or developmental disabilities. One such opportunity is the Summer Work Program hosted by the Sonoran Center for Excellence in Disabilities. The Arizona Employment First Action Committee also created a website called, and it is full of resources for job seekers and employers.

Could you go into more detail about your new role?

My new role is a combination of the Employment First initiative and Project SEARCH. I collaborate with professionals in our community who specialize in employment for individuals with cognitive/developmental disabilities. We share information with each other on various topics such as training for job coaches, career fairs, or services for clothing or transportation, so there’s lots of different ways for us to actively engage and recruit the community to increase employment outcomes for neurodiverse individuals. Additionally, I support current Project SEARCH sites in recruitment of interns, or training staff while actively seeking areas to grow new Project SEARCH sites. 

Sounds very collaborative and community facing. 

Yes. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for our partners and the communities we serve. Our partners help support individuals, while the community members create career pathways. I look forward to what Arizona will accomplish in reshaping the employment landscape in the coming years. 

Has the transition to that new role been going well? Any shakeups?

I’m enjoying learning these new roles. There’s a lot of moving pieces within each one, and part of it is because it’s such a collaborative process. I feel like I not only have to understand my organization’s role, but I need to understand the role of every partner and how we all fit together. It is challenging, and that’s also what's so great about it. 

What do you hope for in these new roles? In the near and far future?

Both projects, Employment First and Project SEARCH, are centered around competitive integrated employment and improving outcomes for people with disabilities. We have this phrase, we say “we want to see the needle move”, and that means we want to see more individuals of all abilities in long term, permanent vocations within their communities. Everything that we do is under that lens of “how can we create more”.