Martin, 21, is one of five Hamilton County special education students who completed the inaugural Project SEARCH program at our Chattanooga headquarters. He and fellow intern D’Angelo McReynolds, 20, remain connected to BlueCross following graduation – Martin in a part-time role with the partner company handling our campus environmental services and D’Angelo in a full-time position in the BlueCross warehouse.
Engaging with the working world
Project SEARCH gives high-functioning young adults with intellectual or learning disabilities the opportunity to develop skills to seek competitive employment. Launched in Cincinnati in 1996, the program has expanded across the country.
BlueCross established Chattanooga’s first Project SEARCH program last year and created job rotations in our mailroom, environmental services, facilities management and customer support operations. The rotations became more challenging as the year advanced, allowing the interns to explore their strengths, develop their interests and understand their weaknesses.
Preparing for success
Martin and D’Angelo’s Project SEARCH journey started last summer with a multi-day Camp Work Readiness held at a local high school. Along with six other intern candidates, they received training in a variety of life skills such as navigating public transport, interpersonal communications and cooking.
In early August, the students began meeting at BlueCross. Over the next 30 weeks, they rotated through three internships. Tasks included using our customized software to track customer service outreach, putting together welcome packets for new members, helping maintain the cleanliness of BlueCross common areas, moving materials throughout the Cameron Hill campus, and more. The interns also completed coursework related to self-advocacy, time management and interpersonal communications.
The benefits of the program went beyond workplace experiences. During the course of the year, D’Angelo earned his driver’s license as well as several certifications in heavy equipment operation.
“These achievements will further D’Angelo’s employment options and help advance his career prospects,” says Wendy Evett, the Hamilton County Schools special education instructor who serves as primary liaison with the Project SEARCH students at BlueCross.
Learning from leaders
Throughout the year, many local civic and business leaders visited the BlueCross campus to learn about Project SEARCH. They shared advice with the interns, as well as stories about their own career paths.
“We heard from [Hamilton County Mayor] Jim Coppinger, [Chattanooga Mayor] Andy Berke, [Tennessee State Senator] Bo Watson, [BlueCross Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion] Ron Harris, we had folks from TVA, EPB, you name it,” Wendy says. “It made us feel wonderful to have so many important people support the program.”
While the Project SEARCH interns receive extensive support, the program offers many opportunities for participants to test their limits with complex assignments. Both Martin and D’Angelo take great pride in the challenges they’ve overcome along the way.
“If I’m being honest, there were times when I wanted to give up,” Martin says. “Our support system got me through when I got frustrated or wanted to quit.”
Martin found it really helpful to have Project SEARCH staff as well as people like Stephanie Wiley [outgoing mail] and Sara Avakian [marketing] to go to with questions or concerns.
Adds D’Angelo, “Sometimes, we just had to remember to take a deep breath and try again.”
Wendy and Mark Heydt, Siskin Hospital’s community re-entry specialist and lead skills trainer for Project SEARCH, are quick to note how much all the interns grew personally and professionally throughout the year.
That confidence in particular led to a unique experience for Martin and his fellow interns.
“When Ron Harris came and spoke to the class, he asked if there was anything he could do for us,” Wendy recalls. “Martin immediately replied, ‘I want to meet the big guy – [BlueCross CEO] JD Hickey,’ and next thing you know, we were sitting in on the Tuesday morning executive leadership meeting.”
Both Wendy and Mark say that the first year of the program vastly exceeded their expectations.
“The advancement in the students’ maturity and abilities has been phenomenal,” Wendy says.
“It’s so gratifying to see these young people develop skills that will support them for a lifetime and allow them to maximize their contributions to society.”
“We love these kids like they’re our own – it means so much to see them grow and become successful adults.”
Providing additional support
Wendy and Mark will continue to work with Martin and D’Angelo, offering assistance when needed as they settle into their new jobs.
“I’m nervous because it’s my first real job,” Martin says. “But my first shift went really well!”
Of his new BlueCross role, D’Angelo finds relief in knowing what to expect.
“I already have a relationship with the people I’m working with, so that’s really helpful. And I’m definitely enjoying my new schedule.”
Bright futures ahead
“To see this program actually work has been an amazing and heartwarming experience,” Mark says, noting that people from across the company have taken note of Project SEARCH’s success.
Other businesses in the community have reached out to BlueCross for information on the program. Soon, the company may serve as a training ground for interns who go on to seek employment at other organizations.
The other interns who completed the program also have new experiences on the horizon. Brittany Barnett has moved into a clerical position at EPB, while Chris Konieczny is learning new skills for a potential role in a mailroom. Austin Mayse will participate in the Employment and Community First CHOICES program to continue developing his daily living and employment skills.
Both D’Angelo and Martin look forward to speaking to future Project SEARCH classes. They’re more than happy to offer advice borne from their now-considerable experience.
“I’d tell the interns that it’s important to give things time, to be confident in the ability to figure it out,” D’Angelo says. “Everything will work out in the end.”
“Never give up on your dreams or yourself,” Martin adds. “It’s important to be confident and stay strong.”