"I always wanted to work in a hospital," said CMS student Katie Donaldson. "I like being professional and helping people, and they teach me about what goes on inside the body." Katie enjoys working in the lab at Carolinas HealthCare System Pineville, where her duties include loading blood specimens in the centrifuge and scanning them into the system, something she never imagined she could do.
Katie is learning new things every day about her work and herself through a program called Project SEARCH. This is the first year Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has had the program, which helps train and secure competitive employment for students with disabilities. CMS partnered with CHS Pineville to give each student a yearlong internship, which combines classroom instruction and on-the-job experience. At the end of the internship, they will be assisted in finding a job.
"This is like college placement for them," said Exceptional Children teacher Paige Henderson. "This is their last year of school and it is an investment for them and their families."
To apply for the program, students must be from 19 to 21 years old, have completed curriculum requirements and want to be employed when they graduate. Eight students from different high schools – Katie, Daniel Bartholomy, Miller Brydon, Azalea McDonald, Whitney Parrott, Kyle Stober, Ashley Tanner and Nasir Thomas – work three 12-week rotations in different areas of the hospital. They learn how to apply, interview and resign from their jobs, where they have a mentor but do not have one-on-one support.
"They are a full member of the department – integrated, independent and part of the experience," Henderson said. "And they will now have a resume they would not have had with more than one, and such different, experiences."
CHS Pineville President Chris Hummer said hospital staff are excited about the program and want to ensure a successful experience for the students. He said the program aligns with the hospital's mission to help the students and strengthen the community.
"I will also tell you that having the students around is meaningful on a personal level," Hummer said. "It has compelled us to not take our own faculties for granted and that we have a duty and responsibility to help the students develop so that they can have a fulfilling life. Project SEARCH is a morale booster, for sure."
Katie said she didn't know what to expect when she joined Project SEARCH but she wanted to learn job skills that will help her in the real world. Kyle, who preps food in Dietary Services, said leaving his school was difficult but he loves the program.
"Project SEARCH has taught me to be an intern, not a high school student, and to advocate for myself," he said.
Project SEARCH has additional community partners, including Vocational Rehabilitation and Cardinal Innovations Healthcare. The students also are supported by skills trainer Tonya Wood from InReach, which provides a wide variety of services to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. If needed, the students will continue to receive the support of a job coach once they are employed.
"The skills they are learning here are transferable skills," Wood said, "and every day gives us more insight into what they can really do."
Tracy Hales, EC transition coordinator, said they met last February with Project SEARCH to set up this year's program, which has been used in a variety of settings, such as banks and hotels, in addition to many hospitals.
Hummer said he is pleased with how the program is working.
"We certainly look forward to doing this again," Hummer said. "Our staff has embraced the Project SEARCH students and genuinely enjoys having them around."
And the students enjoy being there. Henderson said they know shortcuts around the hospital better than she does and at lunch, they are the cool kids in the cafeteria, never meeting a stranger.
"It makes me proud to be here, like I'm part of the hospital team," said Daniel, who works in Guest Services.
"I've made friends all over the hospital," Katie said. "I feel honored building those relationships."
Click here for more information about Project SEARCH.
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