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Finding success thanks to Project SEARCH

BlueCross supports career paths and real-world education through a variety of means, including our hands-on internships for college students, accelerated bachelor’s degrees via the BlueSky Tennessee Institute, and tuition reimbursement and job-rotation opportunities for our employees. One of the most meaningful ways we encourage growth and development is through our support of the Project SEARCH program.

Founded at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center by Erin Riehle and Susie Rutkowski, Project SEARCH gives high-functioning young adults with intellectual or learning disabilities the opportunity to earn immersive workforce experience and develop skills to seek competitive employment. The program offers training in budgeting, social skills, leadership, disability awareness, independent living skills and more. 

The program has been implemented in communities across the country and around the world.

BlueCross established Chattanooga’s first Project SEARCH program in 2018, creating job rotations in our customer support, environmental services, facilities management, and mailroom operations.

Rotations become more challenging as the year advances, allowing the interns to explore their strengths, develop their interests and identify areas where they can improve.

James Davis, Project SEARCH graduate, voted “most likely to become Bill Gates” and “best leadership skills”

A welcome return

During the 2021-2022 school year — and following a necessary program pivot to the YMCA due to the COVID-19 pandemic — 10 Hamilton County students took part in BlueCross internships on site at the company’s Chattanooga headquarters through Project SEARCH. A recent graduation ceremony, attended by family members, teachers, and BlueCross mentors and colleagues, honored the students and their accomplishments.

“Self-advocacy is vital to success in the workforce and being an adult,” Roy Vaughn, senior vice president and chief human resources officer for BlueCross, told gathered students and loved ones at the graduation ceremony. “Our goal has been to provide real-world experiences to prepare you for your future career.  Throughout each of your internship placements this year, you and your peers have demonstrated excellence and have made outstanding contributions.”

For Project SEARCH Instructor and Coordinator Bridget Fischer, leading this year’s group through their program experience at BlueCross was all about encouraging them to exit their comfort zones.

“Slowly and consistently throughout the year, we pushed you,” Bridget said during her remarks. “At times, some of you wanted to quit, but you didn’t. I stand here today looking at a vastly different group of young adults — confident and self-assured.”

Bridget stressed how the Project SEARCH graduates are ready to take on the next challenges that await them.

“And when you feel like you can’t, or don’t, or won’t, remember all that you accomplished in the short year,” she added. “Access those tools we’ve given you and push through because you know how to.”

Emily Detre, Project SEARCH graduate, voted “best customer service” and “best in following instructions”

Bridget ended her remarks by quoting tennis great Arthur Ashe — “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” — before introducing each graduate, their program rotations, and their peer-voted superlatives.

Leading by example

Every year, the Project SEARCH graduating class nominates one intern to serve as class speaker. East Hamilton High School senior James Davis — deemed “most likely to become Bill Gates” and having the “best leadership skills” by his peers — discussed his experience in Project SEARCH and offered advice to the gathered crowd.

“You’ll achieve your goals if cooperate with other people and show positivity toward them,” James said during his speech. “Take care of your mental health. Always say good morning to people. Always follow the rules. Our projects [at BlueCross] have taught us all of that, and it has changed my perspective in life. Which is why one day when I live in my own place, I’ll know what path I want to follow without having any challenges.”

James is already on that path, having already been hired at FedEx — though he admitted he was more nervous to give a speech than to start a full-time job.

“I was actually walking around the house as I was writing it on a sheet of paper, because it helps me think better,” James said after the ceremony. “It was pretty nerve-wracking up there at first, but as I was doing it, I felt much more confident.”

Justin Maldonado, Project SEARCH graduate, voted “best at taking constructive criticism” and “most likely to use strategies”

Next steps

Another graduate, Justin Maldonado, will represent the state for Special Olympics USA games in Orlando, Fla., in the fall after having participated in the Regional Special Olympics competition in March. He also had mixed emotions about having to say goodbye to his fellow grads and BlueCross colleagues. 

“I feel happy and sad, but most all I feel very proud of myself to take the opportunity to go through the program,” said Justin,  who was voted “best at taking constructive criticism” and “most likely to use strategies.” “I learned and got a lot out of it. I’m most excited about moving on and just getting into a full-time job, and hopefully being able to move out and just live my life.”

Emily Detre — “best customer service,” “best in following instructions,” and heading to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s FUTURE postsecondary education program this fall — echoed that sentiment.

“I’m excited, but nervous; I don’t want this part of my life to end,” Emily said. “At the same time, I’m ready for what’s next.”

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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