Project SEARCH, which is funded by the Bartow County School System, partnered with Cartersville Medical Center to facilitate the training experience for students who needed to learn the skills necessary for entry-level positions in the community. The opportunity is open to any special needs student who is at least 18 years old and has completed his high school credits. Lead special education teachers recommend students they think are appropriate for the program and applicants must complete an application and attend a working interview.
Interns rotated through three different departments during the school year.
“Emphasis was not only placed on learning everyday tasks, but also on the soft skills that a good employee should possess. Interns focused on getting to work on time and staying on task, refraining from using cell phones while on the job, listening to directions and following them completely, and making eye contact when speaking with others,” Kristy Mitchell, the Project SEARCH instructor, said.
Dr. Scott Smith, Bartow County director of exceptional students, said, “The beauty of this program is that it demonstrates that these kids can do more than people sometimes expect. They have shown that they can work fairly independent and do a good job in an area where they have interest.”
Currently, there is discussion regarding people with disabilities who are employed by various large corporations and are earning less than minimum wage. Smith said, “Due to the conversations taking place at the national level, we wanted to support these students as they go into employment and help them earn at least minimum wage.”
Jessie Victoria, 19, worked in a laboratory and the cafeteria during his internship. After completing the program, he was hired at a local restaurant as a dishwasher. In the short time he has been employed, he has advanced to the prep station and, currently, helps cook. “My favorite thing about Project SEARCH was meeting people. I loved working in the hospital.”
Victoria worked under Jeff Barwick, the director of dietary nutrition services, in the cafeteria. “Jessie was awesome. He was always smiling and always looking to interact with people,” Barwick said. “I learned the value of Project SEARCH and how they can support and help particular people well.”
Alan Harris, 20, found employment at Lowe’s Distribution Warehouse in Adairsville after Project SEARCH. “What helped me the most was learning to deal with a situation if someone changes what I am doing. I learned to be more flexible about changes.” Harris’ future plans include working a full-time job and having a house.
“It was so amazing watching these kids learn their jobs. Baronica Lopez worked in Central Sterile Processing. I observed her once and she was able to tell me the names of the different instruments. To me it just looked like a tray of 50 scissors but she knew the name of each one,” Mitchell said.
The key to the program is in finding the students’ strengths and understanding their needs. “A lot of these students weren’t successful in high school because they couldn’t pass the standardized tests but that doesn’t mean they don’t have skills to work,” Mitchell said.
One student started the year thinking she wanted to work in an office. As her assignment progressed, Mitchell saw the intern disliked the work and realized she was dyslexic. The condition made filing impossible. The next rotation she was placed in materials management and she thrived.
Mitchell credits Kim Chester as the driving force behind the establishment of Project SEARCH in Bartow County. A parent mentor for the county, she acts as a liaison between the schools and families of special needs students. While on the Georgia Council for Developmental Disabilities, she heard about Project SEARCH.
“I think about the hopes and dreams I have for my daughter Haley, who has special needs, and I try to take those and use that to help all the families in Bartow County,” Chester said. “Dr. Smith and Dr. Harper, the superintendent, got behind it quickly but we needed a host site, which is typically done in hospitals. Many communities want to have the program but they hit a roadblock with finding a host site. However, Cartersville Medical Center was willing to take part. They never said they couldn’t do it but focused only on how they could make it happen.”
Project SEARCH is currently recruiting new interns to participate in the program next year. For more information about Project SEARCH, please visit the Facebook page at Project SEARCH Cartersville, or contact Kristy Mitchell at 770-324-9834.