Project SEARCH helps Baldwin County students with disabilities

By Allison Marlow
Posted 2/14/18

Kelsey Boothe wants to be a nurse. Some naysayers might say as a teen with a disability, that dream is impossible.

But at Thomas Hospital’s Project SEARCH, Kelsey is learning ways to adjust her …

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Project SEARCH helps Baldwin County students with disabilities

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Kelsey Boothe wants to be a nurse. Some naysayers might say as a teen with a disability, that dream is impossible.

But at Thomas Hospital’s Project SEARCH, Kelsey is learning ways to adjust her goal to make it attainable, with small steps and hard work. Currently, she works in the hospital’s birthing unit making sure the rooms are clean for the hospital’s smallest patients and bagging ice for moms to be.

“I love it,” she says without hesitation.

Kelsey and 11 other Baldwin County High School students of Project SEARCH don’t complain about working from 8:45 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., without pay. They don’t complain about scooting through 30 minute lunches to be back on the job in time. They don’t complain about catching the BRATS bus from homes as far as Bay Minette.

Instead, when you ask them about their jobs at the hospital, they beam with pride. They are responsible for keeping much of the equipment clean and safe. They roll patients from room to room. They clean up the “icky stuff” after surgeries. They check the expiration dates on equipment. They help the hospital run.

They know the work they do is important. And, they are proud to do it.

“There used to be a big push across the U.S. to place students like this in day programs, now the trend is to help them seek employment so they are not idle,” said Jennifer Baker, a job coach with Project SEARCH. “We are catching them at a younger age and getting them out and helping them say, they can do this.

“They have big dreams, the same dreams as all of us,” she said. “This allows them to feel important.”

Project SEARCH is an international program that began in 1996 in Cincinnati, Ohio. It can be found across the U.S. and Canada and parts of Europe.

The teens that are part of the program at Thomas Hospital have technically finished their senior year at their respective high schools, spread across Baldwin County. Their year of work is an unpaid internship and they receive their diploma after it is completed.

Each morning the students report to work and spend an hour learning life and job skills, such as making eye contact, writing resumes and attention to personal hygiene.

The students will rotate through three hospital departments, spending 10 weeks at each. At the end of the year, the program managers help them to find employment, prep them for the interview and attend work with them to help learn the ropes of their new job.

Baker said the follow through is absolutely necessary because many application processes are biased against the handicapped population. Online applications and personality tests can be impossible to navigate.

Project SEARCH also works hard to overcome generations’ worth of stigma and tradition that sometimes keeps disabled people out of the workforce.

“We have to educate the parents and let them know that the disability check might go down but in the long run they will make more money,” Baker said.

Hiring managers say the students they hire from Project SEARCH are some of their best employees.

Daniel Chambliss, who provides environmental services for the hospital, has hired Project SEARCH students.

“We learn more from these students then I think they may ever learn from us,” he said. “Our most recent hire, his character and charisma has been an inspiration for us all. He has challenges but he is in here every day, professional and polite.

“If someone looks at these kids and says they can’t work for them, then they are just judging a book by its cover,” he said.

Hospital staff members say they are also inspired by the students’ transformations over the year.

“During the initial interviews many of these students are withdrawn and quiet,” said Carol Statter, workforce development coordinator for Infirmary Health. “Then they come here and get out of their shell. The transformation is amazing.”

Each year, students leave the program, enter the local workforce and help the program continue to build upon its successes. The numbers show incredible growth and improvement but for the students who board the bus each day, with lunchbox in hand, the success is measured in much simpler terms.

“This brings us joy,” said Cally Mears.