Six youngsters with learning disabilities are gathered around in their classroom, ready to grow their employment skills from an internship at a Lewisham housing association.

The Project SEARCH initiative adopted by Phoenix Community Housing has immersed the interns in the world of work – and their enthusiasm is clear.

Speaking to News Shopper, one intern, Stephen Kielty, describes the scheme as “brilliant.”

Stephen is currently working on a caretaking internship which involves cleaning up housing estates run by Phoenix.

His job coach, Mandella Briscoe from Toucan Employment, says Stephen’s progress is “amazing.”

She adds his confidence in travelling alone has come along leaps and bounds since he started working for Phoenix just a fortnight ago.

“He can travel independently now whereas before he needed support. He knows he’s got to wait for the green man before he can cross,” she says.

Another intern, Kidijat Bangura, is keen to demonstrate her new skills as she shows News Shopper around the Green Man centre on Bromley Road.

She breaks into a beaming grin when her accolade of ‘Intern of the Week’ is mentioned – an award she didn’t expect to win.

Kidijat is working in facilities management at Phoenix, making sure the office is well maintained for staff.

She explains she has been “feeling happy” since she started the internship and is enjoying learning new skills.

The six interns work full days from Monday-Friday and have two hour-long lessons each day.

Course tutor Paula McAlpine, from Lewisham College, says: “I’ve been absolutely bowled over by how amazing the response has been towards our learners.

“Every day, we’re seeing them gain more skills and become more confident.”

Although the nine month internship is unpaid, the ultimate aim is to employ the interns full-time once they have completed their work experience.

Jim Ripley, CEO of Phoenix, describes the project as “one of the best things we’ve ever done.”

“The feedback I’ve had from everyone is something you don’t normally get. It makes me so proud and happy.

“Every time we take on apprentices we invest a lot in them and we don’t want to lose them. I’m really hopeful that we’ll get to employ people permanently.”

According to their mentors, the interns have already shown impressive progress in just two weeks on their placements.

“When I first met them they were shy, subdued and withdrawn," Mandella says.

“But over the last couple of weeks you can see the growth in them – the passion, the fire, the eagerness that they want to learn and be employed. It’s just amazing.”