Blazing a trail of achievement

Eight trailblazing students in the first Project SEARCH program in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools graduated on June 8.

Project SEARCH helps train and secure competitive employment for students with disabilities. CMS partnered with CHS Pineville to give each student a yearlong internship, blending classroom instruction with on-the-job experience and, ultimately, assistance in finding a job.

The students worked in different areas of the hospital, from the gift shop and guest services to the emergency room and maternity ward. Some students cooked and made coffee in Dietary Services. Others cleaned pumps and sorted sutures in Sterile Processing. Those who worked in the lab loaded blood specimens in the centrifuge and scanned them into the system.

Daniel Bartholomy, Miller Brydon, Katie Donaldson, Azalea McDonald, Whitney Parrott, Kyle Stober, Ashley Tanner and Nasir Thomas – all from different high schools – completed the program. Katie, Ashley and Nasir have already been hired by the hospital's Dietary Services department. Ashley and Nasir will be working at the main hospital and Katie started work at the rehabilitation center before graduation. The other five students are actively interviewing for positions.

"It's amazing to have a job," Katie said.

The Project SEARCH graduation ceremony was held at CHS Pineville, where the students had worked three 12-week rotations. They learned how to apply, interview and resign from each job. Each student had a mentor but did not have one-on-one support.

Paige Brydon, Miller's mother, was one of the graduation guests, who included family members, CMS and hospital administrators, and hospital employees. She said they were relieved and ecstatic when they heard about Project SEARCH. They were also nervous because it was a new program but decided to try it for Miller.

"He was very excited and he was ready," Brydon said. "He is proud of the job he does, it's important work and he has a purpose. They found he has real skills and critical thinking, which is so important for all of our kids."

Most of the graduation speakers and the guests were emotional and boxes of tissues were handed around before the ceremony began. Speakers praised the students' enthusiasm and professionalism, as well as the way they taught each other as they moved through their rotations.

CHS Pineville President Chris Hummer said that the hospital wanted to ensure that Project SEARCH was done well and is now firmly committed to continuing the program.

"The goal without a doubt is to prepare these young folks," Hummer said, "but if we're honest with ourselves, we've gotten a heck of a lot out of this as well."

Exceptional Children teacher Paige Henderson said eight students have registered for next year's program. To apply, students must be from 19 to 21 years old, have completed curriculum requirements and want to be employed when they graduate. The program can be held in a variety of settings, such as banks and hotels, in addition to hospitals.

Project SEARCH has multiple community partners, including Vocational Rehabilitation, Cardinal Innovations Healthcare and InReach, which provides a wide variety of services to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. If needed, the new graduates will continue to be supported by skills trainer Tonya Wood from InReach, who has been with them throughout the year.

"Whatever it is that they need, we want to make sure they'll be successful," Wood said.

And they will be, according to Kyle and Azalea. Both spoke at graduation, saying they had a difficult transition to the program at first, but they have learned the skills they need for the future.

"I have made many new friends," Kyle said. "I will do whatever it takes to get a job."

"Project SEARCH taught me to be confident in myself," Azalea said. "It's time for me to move on to my next adventure."

Click here for more information about Project SEARCH.