Group Helps Students With Disabilities Learn Real-World Job Skills

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The Project SEARCH graduates pose for a group photo, surrounded by several of their job coaches and mentors. Front row, from left to right:  Ellie Mae Seamon, Elizabeth Kline, Kaitlynn Lee, Nicole Cullen. Second row, second from left to fourth from right: Cody Jackson, Calin Sears, Nikolas Sosa, Ian Gordon, Alex Weaver. Not pictured. Mariah Minns.
The Project SEARCH graduates pose for a group photo, surrounded by several of their job coaches and mentors. Front row, from left to right: Ellie Mae Seamon, Elizabeth Kline, Kaitlynn Lee, Nicole Cullen. Second row, second from left to fourth from right: Cody Jackson, Calin Sears, Nikolas Sosa, Ian Gordon, Alex Weaver. Not pictured: Mariah Minns.

In the five years since its creation, the Williamsburg branch of a group that helps high school students with disabilities learn skills for jobs in healthcare has a 100 percent job placement rate.

This year’s graduating class looks to be no exception.

The 2014-2015 Project SEARCH class includes 10 graduates drawn from the Historic Triangle, all of whom have completed a competitive year-long program that focuses on teaching them interview skills, how to write a resume, and the importance of dressing for success.

Additionally, they learns skills that are more specific to health care, including patient transport, custodial services and materials management.

The long road to Thursday’s graduation ceremony, which took place at Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center, began with a rigorous eligibility and application process back in the fall.

In order to qualify, students must be 18 years of age or older and have an active IEP or 504 — the paperwork that indicates a student has a disability that requires a school to make accommodations for them — with either Williamsburg-James City County Schools or the York County School Division.

Once they are deemed eligible, they go through the application process, and ultimately only about 50 percent of students who apply are accepted.

The program itself represents a collaboration between several entities. The main players are the local school systems and Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center. Additional support comes from the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services and the Choice Group, an organization that helps those who typically face obstacles to entering the workforce find meaningful employment.

Each student is placed in three 10-week internships at Sentara over the course of the year. Which department they work for depends on their unique strengths and needs as future employees. Job coaches are by them every step of the way to help them acclimate to their responsibilities and manage whatever personal anxieties they may be combating.

The ultimate goal is employment, and program coordinators are constantly searching for good fits for the students with whom they work. Though their training is specific to healthcare industries, the job skills they learn make them valuable employees for a range of different business; one graduate has secured a job working at a TGIFridays in Hampton Roads.

Sometimes students are placed as early as January, while others may be placed in the weeks or months after their official graduation.

“We’re not giving up until everybody has a job,” said Chris Lavach, the vice president and director of community services at the Choice Group.

David Masterson, the President of Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center, has had 27 years of experience in hospital administration, but this is the first hospital he’s worked for that offers this kind of program.

“It is such an amazing asset to our community,” he said.

The students come away with valuable job skills, but many of them also describe gaining something more from their time in the program.

“I am most thankful for meeting my fellow interns,” said Ian Gordon, a member of this year’s graduating class. Several of his peers echoed that sentiment, describing the friendships and improved social skills they’d gained as a result of their participation in Project SEARCH.

It’s not unusual for graduates to go on to work at the same hospital that played such a crucial role in their education. Don West, the Business Liaison between the Sentara and Project SEARCH, regularly hires alumni of the program to come on as part- or full-time workers. Many of the graduates of this class will continue that trend.

“They are truly some of my best employees,” West said.

Project SEARCH began in 1996 at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Since then, it has expanded to more than 300 places in six countries.