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Ready for the real world: Project SEARCH helps students with intellectual and learning disabilities

In August 2018, eight students from Hamilton County schools will join the hustle and bustle of the workday as interns on the BlueCross Cameron Hill campus. These are no ordinary interns, though – they are the inaugural class of the newly established Project SEARCH program in Chattanooga.

Project SEARCH is designed to give young adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities valuable work experience.  Originally founded by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, the program has since been implemented in communities across the country and around the world.

Liftoff for Scenic City students

Establishing Project SEARCH in Chattanooga has long been a goal for the Hamilton County Department of Education (HCDE). A lack of specialized job training resources means many young adult students with intellectual and developmental challenges end up at home and unemployed after completing high school.

“These are high-functioning students who are aging out of many of their supportive services,” says Project SEARCH liaison Jennifer Allison, also an exceptional education lead teacher for secondary programs at HCDE.

“These individuals have demonstrated capacity to learn and grow and contribute to the community, but there are few resources available to help them develop the kind of life and professional skills that would enable them to seek competitive employment.”

BlueCross Project Search D'Angelo McReynolds
BlueCross Human Resources representatives Laura Hessler and Shunyale Griffin interview D’Angelo McReynolds, one of the Project SEARCH participants.

In order for the program to operate in Chattanooga, a company had to be willing to take it on.  The BlueCross involvement in Project SEARCH began when Stephani Ryan, vice president of BlueCare CHOICES (which supports disabled individuals with home- and community-based services) connected with HCDE and Project SEARCH’s co-founder, Susie Rutkowski, at a conference.

“Our company’s Employment and Community First program within CHOICES is all about helping people with disabilities participate in their community at the highest level possible,” Stephani says. “Supporting Project SEARCH was a natural fit.”

Setting the stage for success

BlueCross Human Resources took on the task of developing and implementing Project SEARCH in the Chattanooga office. The process, which began last fall, involved identifying a series of different jobs that students could rotate through during their internships – as well as determining how many internship slots would be available.

“These interns require more hands-on direction than the typical employee, and they have different skill sets,” says Laura Hessler, manager of talent acquisition in Human Resources. “We needed to make sure that we accounted for those things in determining which areas might be able to support an intern.”

The Tennessee Department of Human Services – Vocational Rehabilitation (TDHS) and Siskin Hospital for Rehabilitation both provided guidance, helping HCDE and BlueCross HR staff develop opportunities that account for the different needs and strengths of Project SEARCH participants.

BlueCross team members Linda Atkins and Brittani Brown interview Brittany Barnett, a Project SEARCH participant.

“We wanted to help BlueCross develop an environment where these young people can flourish and advance their skill sets  while providing a truly useful service to the company,” says Tiffany Ramsey, regional supervisor with TDHS.

In the early spring, prospective interns and their parents/guardians attended a series of meetings at BlueCross headquarters on Cameron Hill to learn more about the program. TDHS and Siskin Hospital staff also worked with HCDE to prepare the students for internship opportunities.

“Our collective goal was to set everyone up for success,” says Wendy Evatt, HCDE liaison for Project SEARCH. “Proper preparation helps ensure that everyone has a good experience – and that the interns acquire skills that can be used in gainful employment in the community.”

A field of 13 candidates was whittled to eight finalists after interviews and skills assessments with BlueCross employees and staff from the three supporting organizations.

“During the skills assessments, prospective interns performed a series of tasks such as moving materials, sorting mail, entering information from phone messages into a spreadsheet, and constructing furniture,” says Siskin Hospital’s Community Re-entry Specialist Mark Heydt, who is the lead skills trainer for Project SEARCH. “The students also answered questions about their interests and desire to work, which gave us an idea of their interpersonal communication abilities.”

Heading to camp

Project SEARCH participant Martin Boatwright meets with representatives from the Hamilton County Department of Education.

The chosen eight attended a Camp Work Readiness event in mid-June, which included training on a variety of practical and professional skills such as reading and following a bus schedule for transportation to and from work. The group also had the opportunity to talk through different workplace scenarios and practiced their business communication skills – including eye contact, greetings and the all-important handshake.

At the end of camp, each intern participated in mock interviews with volunteers from BlueCross and other area businesses.

“Getting to meet and talk with the students was a great honor,” says BlueCross HR Service Unit Manager Linda Atkins, who served as one of the mock interviewers. “It was wonderful to see how eager they are to learn and develop skills for gainful employment.”

Gaining experience

The Project SEARCH interns, all of whom are in their senior year, will be on campus from
8 a.m.-3 p.m. every weekday, and will follow the schedule of the school year. The group will start their workdays in a classroom in the Gateway building, discussing plans for each day and working through a Project SEARCH curriculum that includes lessons on how to get and keep a job, health and wellness, technology, self-advocacy, and more.

After a two-week orientation and training period wraps in August, interns will embark on the first of their three successive 10-week internships in the company. They’ll rotate through roles in different divisions – from clerical work with BlueCare Tennessee and Member Benefits Administration to facilities support with Properties and Administrative Services and custodial roles with Environmental Services.

“Each department involved in this initiative will provide a mentor – someone the Project SEARCH intern can go to with questions and rely on for support,” says Project SEARCH’s Susie Rutkowski. “A Project SEARCH instructor will work with each intern to learn new tasks in the various areas as the internship progresses.”

Project SEARCH participants Marlon Kennemore, Chris Konieczny, Austin Mayse, Brittany Barnett, Joshua Wooten and Wesley Gallaher prepare for the start of their internships at Camp Work Readiness.

By the end of the program in May 2019, each participant will have a robust set of skills and experience to add to their resume  – a resume that will hopefully help them secure a paying job in the community once the program ends.

“This is an opportunity for these interns to get a job and go on with their lives, just like their counterparts in high school are doing,” Susie says.

Parents are optimistic about the impact the program will have on their children.

“My son wants to move forward, he wants to go out in the world and get a job and a paycheck,” says Angela McReynolds, mother of Project SEARCH intern D’Angelo McReynolds. “This program gives him hope for the future to not be looked at differently because of his disability. It’s good to see kids have this support.”

About Alison Sexter, Communications Specialist

A photo of the authorAlison has been a member of the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee corporate communications team since 2015. A Chattanooga native, she has a decade of health care communications experience including writing, editing, public relations and social media.

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