By: Ruth Cummins, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jourdan Hinds left Northwest Rankin High School in search of a full-time job. He landed one at the University of Mississippi Medical Center after showing he has the chops for it.
That’s the goal of a program that gives teens and young adults with intellectual disabilities the chance to learn job and life skills that will lead to self-sufficiency. UMMC is one of a handful of sites in the state that host Project SEARCH, a national initiative designed to help students with disabilities obtain competitive, community-based employment.
When he got the offer of a position in the Medical Center’s vast food services kitchen, “I was so excited,” said Hinds, 18, a Flowood resident. He started work about two weeks before finishing his nine-month Project SEARCH internship.
Begun at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 1996, Project SEARCH operates in more than 600 sites across the country and internationally. It’s designed primarily for students who have either just finished high school, or just entering, their senior year.
UMMC hosted its first Project SEARCH class in 2018, partnering with the Rankin County School District, which selects participants for an internship that includes morning classroom instruction and afternoons spent rotating among departments that agree to host students. Each intern completes three 10-week rotations, gaining valuable experience and a taste for what job might be a good fit for them in the future.
In addition to Hinds, this year’s Project SEARCH class includes Brandon High students Ian Lee, Wayne McDowell II and Brad Woods; and Northwest Rankin student Michael Patterson. All were honored during graduation ceremonies held May 14 in the Classroom Wing, conducted virtually so that friends and family could watch.
“These guys have the best sense of humor. They are really funny and have kept us laughing,” said Christina Guarino, a Rankin County School District teacher who is assigned to Project SEARCH and has taught the five this school year.
“These kids inspire me,” said Ryan McMillan, UMMC administrator of support services and the Medical Center’s Project SEARCH business liaison.
The interns rotated through corners of UMMC that include patient equipment, supply chain, shipping and receiving, food services, hospital administration, printing services and volunteer services. “Because of COVID-19, they’ve had to stay in non-patient care areas,” Guarino said. “We had the opportunity to tour the Sanderson Tower, but they didn’t get to do as many things as they usually do. Hopefully, next year will be better.”
“We had to modify everything we’ve done in previous years, from the classroom setting on,” McMillan said. “But, you wouldn’t know that from being around them. They were so positive throughout the whole experience and the whole school year.”
The students’ time at the Medical prepares them for as much independence and continuous employment as possible. “We look at what their interests, skills and abilities are, and we ask them what UMMC departments they’d like to work in,” Guarino said. “They get transferrable skills that everyone needs, regardless of where they work.”
“We do skills assessments when they go through the interview process for Project SEARCH, and we try to pair them in our workforce in a role that best fits their skills set and personality,” McMillan said.
For example, interns rotating through volunteer services helped maintain a clothes closet for patients in need, distributed snacks at Sanderson Tower, and helped maintain collections of children’s library books.
Hinds is making use of the skills he developed through the year in his varied duties around the kitchen. On a recent day, he was sanitizing dishes and their plastic covers that make their way onto meal trays delivered to inpatients. It’s a process, as opposed to simply loading and unloading a dishwasher.
He deftly stacked the warm plate covers, removing them from a dishwashing rack and lining them up on a cart to finish drying. Dry dinner plates are destined for a different rolling rack. “We turn the plates over and then we take them to the cooking area,” Hinds explained.
Also key to interns’ job prospects is time spent in the classroom with Guarino. “They learn about employability and independent living skills, teamwork, financial literacy, health and wellness, technology, self-advocacy, and how to prepare for and maintain employment,” she said.
That paid off for Woods, who begins an internship this week at the Rankin County Co-Op in Brandon. “He lives right by it. It’s great for him,” Guarino said.
If an intern doesn’t have employment by the time the program ends, Guarino works with them to continue their job search. Like Hinds, a number of them stay on at UMMC.
That group includes Trett Burgess, a 2020 Project SEARCH intern who assists at the Center for Comparative Research.
“Trett is an extremely amiable and dependable member of our research support team,” said Dr. Chris Hanks, the Center’s assistant director and an assistant professor in the Department of Surgery. “Along with his coach, Sam, Trett handles all of his duties and responsibilities in a timely and efficient manner, adding value to the team. We love having Trett on board. He brings a smile to our face every day.”
Already, the Medical Center and the Rankin County School District are fielding candidates for the fall. “It’s an amazing program,” McMillan said.
Any UMMC departments that would like to host interns during rotations can contact Guarino at email@example.com. “We want more options for our students so that we can match them with jobs,” she said.
During the graduation, one of the interns was absent, but celebrated nevertheless.
Michael Patterson had to work.
“He already got a job at UniFirst Uniform Service,” Guarino said. “He’s a warehouse loader and started full time on April 27.
“We are so pumped for him. It’s so exciting.”