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Celebrating a bright future for Project SEARCH’s 2023 graduates

“If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.”

That motivational quote, attributed to Frank A. Clark, was delivered at the tail end of this year’s Project SEARCH graduation. But its tone was set early on during an event at the BlueCross headquarters in Chattanooga that recognized the achievements of five Hamilton County students.

Project SEARCH gives high-functioning young adults with intellectual or learning disabilities the opportunity to earn immersive workforce experience, work with teams, and develop skills to seek competitive employment. 

The program offers hands-on training in budgeting, social skills, leadership, disability awareness, independent living skills and more.

Since 2018, BlueCross has partnered with Project SEARCH and the Hamilton County Department of Education to offer job-rotation internships to qualifying high school seniors. We were the first in Chattanooga to offer this program, and we believe it’s of the most meaningful ways we encourage growth and development in the community. 

Bridget Fischer, Project SEARCH instructor and coordinator, addresses graduates, families and employees at the BlueCross Chattanooga headquarters.

Project SEARCH Instructor and Coordinator Bridget Fisher offered a key to the program’s success by highlighting some statistics from last year’s graduating class:

  • All 10 graduates are currently employed.
  • Five of those 10 are employed with full-time benefits.
  • The average pay for the entire group is $14.65 per hour, the highest pay being $21.10 per hour.
  • Three of the 10 have already received their first raise in less than a year.

“These current interns have already heard this a million times, but just because something seems difficult, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a try,” Bridget said to attendees. “And I don’t want you to be fooled by the size of this group. They may be small in number, but they are mighty.”

BlueCross Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer Roy Vaughn also spoke at the event, reiterating to graduates and attendees that the Project SEARCH experience is about becoming more independent and stepping fully into adulthood.

“You’ve pushed yourselves out of your comfort zones while you’ve been here, and you’ve accepted new challenges,” Roy shared in his remarks. “If you think about one thing as you move forward, that is the concept of self-advocacy. As we look around, you’re surrounded by advocates and loved ones here. But doing that for yourself is part of being a success in the workforce, and it’s also part of being an adult. So, our goal has been to provide you with some real-world experiences to help prepare you  for your next work experiences.”

Straight from the students

As a group, this year’s graduates selected two interns as class speakers: Alzaivion “Zay” Owens and Mary Whitman.

Project SEARCH graduate and speaker Alzaivion “Zay” Owens

Zay’s internship was divided among the environmental systems services, facilities and food service departments. His peers voted him most talkative (which earned a big laugh from the gathered crowd, including from Zay himself), most confident, most likely to take a risk, most positive attitude, and best leadership skills, among others.

“We all started in August, working hard in our departments, learning skills so we can get good jobs,” Zay said in his speech. “All year long, we have been learning how to do adulting tasks so we can live on our own one day.”

“Now, we are ready to show what we know. Things will be different for each of us when we leave. This was a good program, and we are happy we had the chance to come here and learn.”

Next, Mary — already looking forward to her first in-person job interview the following week —took to the podium. Her internship was split between food service, internal mail and health promotions — a new department to the Project SEARCH program, and one whose entire team came to the event to show their support for Mary.

She was voted most likely to listen, most likely to take initiative, most supportive, and best at taking constructive criticism, among others.

Project SEARCH graduate and speaker Mary Whitman

“In the beginning of Project SEARCH, I did not know what I was getting myself into, and I was a little scared,” Mary admitted. “[But] I know that Project SEARCH has been a good thing for me, because I have learned so much.”

“Bridget gives us words like ‘teamwork’ and ‘responsibility.’ I will always try to make these not just my work habits, but my life habits. I have learned how to do things I never knew I could do. Everyone was so patient and encouraging.”

The value of a village

After the speeches, Bridget shared a little about each of the graduates, including details about their internships, what made them stand out, and their peer-voted superlatives, followed by presenting each graduate with their certificate of completion.

For all in attendance, Bridget shared “one last quote” (the aforementioned words from Frank A. Clark) in addition to one final piece of wisdom.

“In the journey that you’re about to continue, you will get out exactly what you put in,” she said.  “That applies to our amazing mentors and supervisors, as well. There’s a great proverb that reads, ‘A society grows great when old men — people, in this case — plant trees, the shade of which they know they will never sit in.’ Good people do things for other people.”


About Jesse Thompson, Senior Communications Specialist

A photo of the authorJesse joined the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee corporate communications team in 2017. A Chattanooga native, he has more than 15 years’ experience in content creation, management, and strategy for consumer audiences, including a six-year stint in health care marketing.

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