By Kristin Fox
Wearing the traditional blue cap and gown and walking into the Pomp and Circumstance graduation march, six young adults recently celebrated their graduation from Project SEARCH, a unique transition-to-work program held at Southwestern Community College that prepares young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities for meaningful competitive employment.
The 2023 Project SEARCH class included Jeremiah Hammond and Connor Karcher from Franklin; Maria Martinez, Julia Rouse and Andy Watty from Sylva; and Alex Styles from Bryson City. This class marks the 8th group to graduate from the program bringing the total number of graduates from the local program to 47 graduates. The local Project SEARCH, which started in 2014, has placed graduates in jobs in the program’s three service areas — Macon, Jackson, and Swain Counties.
In the three counties, Project SEARCH graduates work in retail, healthcare, food service, entertainment, school systems, libraries, offices, and a print shop. After graduation, the Project SEARCH team works with the students to make sure they are fully integrated into their workplace and paid the same comparable wages that others are for the same position. The ultimate goal of the program is permanent job placement upon graduation from the program.
Under the direction of Devonne Jimison, MAEd, SCC College and Career Readiness Director, these six individuals spent the academic year working side by side in the classroom with job coaches to gain employability and life skills as well as on-the-job training through internships on the SCC campus.
Project SEARCH is a year-long program in which students, ages 18-30, complete two semesters of a college class. Along with employability skills, the students learn independent living skills and fine-tune their social skills. Each day in the Project SEARCH program begins and ends with class time where the students cover topics such as teamwork, setting goals, workplace safety, computer skills, job skills, self-advocacy, health and wellness, money skills, and retaining a job. Class time is very interactive with a lot of educational games, practicing interview questions, acting out work scenarios and the proper way to handle situations.
After class, the students (interns) go to their work sites on the SCC campus and put into practice the things they are learning in the classroom. They are accompanied by a skills trainer or their teacher for support and feedback. The sites worked by the interns on campus include the library, public relations, maintenance, landscaping, washing and detailing the campus cars, the cafe, the science department and other various SCC offices. The interns are also called on to work at special events that occur on campus serving as the SCC goodwill ambassadors. The students complete three 10-week internships matched to their individual interests, strengths and abilities and focusing on work quality and productivity.
Project SEARCH is a national program that began at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital which is still the headquarters for the program. SCC was selected to be a part of the program and initially was started with grant funding. After the first year, the program has had to work with partners, WestBridge Vocational and North Carolina Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, to sustain the program.
“As the teacher and coordinator of the program, I see the students not only learn skills that will make them successful in the workplace, but I see such personal growth in them,” said Jimison. “That is actually what makes me the happiest.”
“So often they come in without a true self-identity and that is a lot of what we talk about and do activities geared toward,” she added. “They grow in their belief in themselves and as a result grow in their belief of what they can accomplish and what jobs they can attempt. Along with that they learn how to be their own advocate and how to ask for the accommodations they have a right to. I do a pre- and posttest of their reading and comprehension, and it never fails that every student’s score goes up during the year.”
Students have to apply to be a part of Project SEARCH and then go through an interview process. Potential students will also need to be a vocational rehabilitation client or become one. Each year, the Project SEARCH program at SCC selects between 6 to 8 students yearly to be in the program.
“We are very proud that our program and interns have been very successful in job placement,” added Jimison. “Each year we have had 80%+ placement success. For those that we did not place, it was due to a move out of the area or them choosing not to enter employment but that has been rare. We have received recognition at the national conference for being a stellar site for three of our 9 active years. We also have been asked to make a presentation about our program at several state-wide conferences.”
According to Jimison, there are a few spots left for the 2023-2024 program. If anyone is interested in applying or talking to Jimison directly about the program, they can contact her at email@example.com or (828) 339-4361.
All six graduates in the year’s Project SEARCH class at SCC stated they were glad they participated in the program and would recommend other young adults take advantage of this opportunity at SCC.