In the tiniest of ceremonies last week, the last 10 Baldwin County graduates crossed the stage and headed into their futures.
Those who mentored them over the last year might say that these teens are not just ready to take the world by storm, but already have.
The special education students are all members of Thomas Hospital’s Project SEARCH, spend their last year of high school, a fifth year, actually, working fulltime at the hospital. They’ve served in various departments learning basic job and life skills. Their co-workers and mentors have worked with them to improve eye contact, writing resumes and personal hygiene skills.
They’ve followed them through the process of applying for jobs and interviewing.
“Having them has meant a lot to us. They’ve had a great impact on the staff, the physicians and the patients,” said Ormand Thompson, president of Thomas Hospital during the graduation program. “And they work. They get after it.”
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.
The students rotated through three hospital departments, spending 10 weeks at each. At the end of the year, the program managers helped them to find employment, prep them for the interview and attend work with them to help learn the ropes of their new job.
During Project SEARCH’s first five years at Thomas Hospital the program graduated 36 students and 21 of those are still working. Four of those students work at the hospital today.
This year the program graduated 10 students and six are already employed, including one at the hospital.
To open the ceremony Ramsey Wilder, of Spanish Fort, sang the national anthem.
Sade Vail, of Fairhope, gave the graduation address. She spoke of the challenges and joys of her year at the hospital.
“It was hard finding my department and climbing all the stairs but I made it. I learned how to ask for help when I needed help,” she said. “I loved having breaks, Christmas vacation and spring vacation. My physical therapy job was a challenge, but I handled it like a grown person.
By the end of Vail’s speech, and a video of highlights from the year, much of the crowd was wiping away tears.
“As I close my speech for Project Search 2018, the most important thing I learned is, we are a team. There is no I in team,” Vail said. “No one should ever feel left out because Project Search taught us how to be a team and work together and never go against one another.”