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Wed, May 18, 2016 at 12:00 AM

Project SEARCH students celebrate graduation

The graduation of nine Project SEARCH students drew a big celebration at Marshall Medical Centers.

Hospital staff, state officials, parents, grandparents, teachers and job coaches watched as the group previously considered unemployable young adults graduated from a year of learning skills on the job.

“Today is about you and the opportunities you’ve been given,” Micah Williamson of the Alabama Department of Rehab Services told the group. “I want to thank the hospital for the opportunity for these young peoples’ lives to be changed.”

The high school students worked for 10 months rotating between departments in Marshall North and South and TherapyPlus. Two students were hired to work permanently at each hospital, and five students landed jobs elsewhere.

Project SEARCH is a national program that targets students with intellectual and developmental disabilities with a goal of helping them become employable.

The significance of the milestone was not lost on the students. Cassie Cook, who works in the cafeteria at South, couldn’t hold back tears as she thanked her grandparents and her job coaches.

“Each one of you has impacted my life in some way,” she said. “I am blessed to wake up every morning and know I will have a great day at work.”

David Turley, who now works at Classic Car Wash, said he was a ‘nobody’ before joining the program.

“Before Project SEARCH, I was just a video game geek,” he said. “Project SEARCH opened up a world I never knew. It helped me go from a nobody game geek to a person that the community knows and loves. Thank y'all.”

Crystal Richardson, program coordinator for special education services for the state board of education, said there are 10 Project SEARCH sites in Alabama. Statewide 70 percent of those students are employed, which exceeds the national average.

Job Coach Beth Hanner said the interns received warm welcomes at each training place.

Ann Kennamer, also a job coach, said the students blossomed during the experience.

“We’ve seen them transform because you were focused on their abilities, not their disabilities,” she said.

Jim Perdue, Alabama Commissioner of Mental Health, said people with disabilities average an unemployment rate of about 75 percent.

“These graduates have an employable rate of about 75 percent,” he said. “You are winners.”

In Marshall County the program is a partnership between ADRS, the state and county boards of education and ARC of Jackson County. The county school system provides job coaches to supervise students on the job. Job coaches stay with students until they become skilled enough to work independently. Students were selected from DAR, Albertville, Brindlee Mountain, Asbury and Douglas high schools.