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Making it Work
with Project SEARCH

By Emily Merrell, Photography by Audrey Poff

The Jonesboro division of Project SEARCH, an international job training program for young adults with intellectual disabilities, is celebrating five years of helping its interns learn the skills and independence necessary to be successful in the workforce.

Locally, Project SEARCH has partnered with St. Bernards, ACCESS and Arkansas Rehabilitation Services. Erin Leach, job development manager, says that the program’s partners all collaborate closely to ensure Project SEARCH’s success in Jonesboro.

“ACCESS is our educational resource provider,” said Leach. “They provide the community resources that help us to go out and educate the community about our program. They also provide training for our staff and hire the staff at each one of our sites. Arkansas Rehabilitation Services are a big partner in that they provide funding. They also help with recruitment and decide the eligibility requirements for individuals that can be in this program. They help us steer our program in how it needs to go.

“St. Bernards is our host site; they’re our business partner. They provide the training space and internship opportunities for our interns. They also help us with recruiting, hiring and educating individuals. Each partner does a specific thing, but we all come together to make it happen in the communities we’re in. We’ve really enjoyed Jonesboro, and they’ve really embraced our program. We’ve had success every year.”

In order to be eligible to be interns in Jonesboro, applicants must be a high school graduate between the ages of 18 and 35, have an official diagnosis and have a counselor with Arkansas Rehabilitation Services. Applicants go through interviews and assessments, and although more than 30 young adults usually apply, only 11 are selected as interns each year.

Participants then spend a full academic year with Project Search, starting in August with two weeks of orientation, followed by three 10-week internships in various departments of St. Bernards, both on and off campus, in departments such as nutrition services, housekeeping, floor technicians, central supply, transportation, admissions, surgery, ICU, reference lab, phlebotomy, engineering, the Villas, total life care and hospice. These internships are hand-selected for each participant based on his or her needs and which experiences will best help them be ready to be successful in the workforce. After the three internships, participants graduate from the program in May, many already having found employment before even graduating from Project SEARCH. 

Mary Housewright, who serves as the instructor coordinator, says that the program helps participants learn the skills they need to be successful in any field of work they choose.

“We’ve had a lot of young men and women with intellectual disabilities that have tried working and have not been successful in it, and that’s where we are really able to help them bridge that gap,” said Housewright. “We teach them social skills, we teach them technology. We don’t just teach them skills for working in the hospital; we have a curriculum that we work on every day.” 

Participants spend a significant amount of time in the training room located on the St. Bernards campus working one-on-one with the program’s two skills trainers, Jessica Blevins and Caleb Nealy. There, they work on learning social skills, business etiquette, vocabulary, self-confidence and how to advocate for themselves.

Blevins says she isn’t focused only on employment skills, but also teaching participants to be more independent in all areas of life.

“We encourage independence,” said Blevins. “As a skills trainer, we challenge them to do things at home. They might have a homework assignment where they have to do a load of laundry and document it with videos.

“I speak with the parents and tell them that they’re struggling with a skill and ask the parents to work with them on the skill at home, as well. It’s a constant and collaborative effort.”

Project SEARCH also helps participants study for and obtain their driver’s licenses, with many interns also graduating in May with a newly earned permit. Blevins says that Project SEARCH is just as much of a learning experience for the parents of its participants, who are able to see their child thrive and gain independence in the course of a year with the help of the program. 

“At the beginning we hear a lot of, ‘He can’t do that,’ and we say, ‘Watch him. We promise you he’s going to.’ And they do,” said Blevins. “Some of our biggest advocates for our program are parents of graduates who come out of the program saying, ‘Boy, did I grow with my young adult. I did not know they were capable of this.’ And they have to be able to be flexible, too, and it’s hard to let go. It’s hard to back away, (because) they’ve been their child’s advocate for their entire life. We’re teaching them to be their own advocate. Mom and dad are not always going to be there, and they definitely won’t be in the workplace with them, so we have to teach them how to speak up and advocate for themselves. We’re still there to assist as a skills trainer, but our hope is that after the program they will continue to work and be able to advocate for themselves.”

Amy Findley, St. Bernards’ organization development manager and business liaison for Project SEARCH, says that St. Bernards’ involvement with the program has shown many people how capable young adults with intellectual disabilities are of accomplishing many tasks, which has led to an increase in the hospital’s inclusivity and awareness.

“I work with the team that helps place interns in internships and possible job opportunities,” said Findley. “This is our fifth year with the program. When we first started with the program, we were excited about having something where we could help the interns and let them learn about a lot of things in the facility.

 “What we have found from that is how much it’s changed us at St. Bernards, our culture and all the things that we do here. It’s been unbelievable to see the interns; when they start the program, a lot of them are really shy, and they won’t make eye contact or speak. … To see them at the end of the program, they’re completely different. The culture at St. Bernards is more inclusive, more aware of individuals with disabilities and there is an awareness of what the interns are capable of doing. It’s so rewarding to see them in so many different roles and see what they are able to accomplish.”

Project SEARCH has been overwhelmingly successful in its first five years in Jonesboro. A total of 41 individuals have graduated from the program, with 96 percent successfully finding employment in the community after graduation. Many participants go on to be hired by St. Bernards, but many also find employment elsewhere in Jonesboro. Project SEARCH also has graduates currently working at Miracle Kids, Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market, Walgreens, Earl Bell Community Center, Jonesboro Public Library and Embassy Suites. 

“We love Project SEARCH,” said Jonesboro Mayor Harold Copenhaver. “I’m proud to say we have hired two full time staff members from the program. It’s a testament to the dedication of the human spirit, and proof that you can find good, deserving employees in unconventional places.”

Project SEARCH graduate Mitchell Griggs, 35, has been employed at St. Bernards as a transporter/pump tech since April.

“I’ve learned to multitask,” said Griggs. “I’ve learned to be more confident about myself. They’ve helped me get my driver’s license. I have my permit right now, but I’m working on getting my license.

“My favorite part of the job is cleaning pumps and moving beds. Project SEARCH is awesome, and I’d recommend it to anybody. I love my job. When they ask me to go transport stuff, I’m right on it.”

Another Project SEARCH graduate, Mason Ross, 22, has been employed as a nutritional services host at St. Bernards since April of this year.

“The most important thing I learned from Project SEARCH is definitely communication,” said Ross. “My favorite part about my job is that I’m on my feet most of the time. I’m busy, so the day goes by quickly. I would definitely recommend Project SEARCH to other people. I loved all of my internships with Project SEARCH; I can’t choose a favorite.”

 

Katie Caughron, 22, who is also a Project SEARCH graduate, works as a laundry tech at St. Bernards, where she was hired in February 2020. Caughron, a Harrisburg High School graduate, says that while high school was tough for her, Project SEARCH helped her learn the skills to be successful.

“High school was hard for me; it was difficult for people to understand me,” said Caughron. “Project SEARCH is a great program. I had a lot of fun, and I learned to advocate for myself. I got my driver’s license through Project SEARCH, and I bought a car for myself, and I got hired at St. Bernards. I am very proud of myself.”

Caughron has no doubt accomplished amazing things so far, but she has no plans of slowing down. She has even more ambitious goals to reach.

“My five-year plan is to buy a house, get lots of exercise and drink lots of water,” she said.

For more information about Project SEARCH, including a link to apply for the program, visit projectsearcharkansas.org.