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Fri, Dec 11, 2015 at 12:00 AM

Students discover career paths thanks to Project SEARCH and Marshall Medical Centers.

Kayla Hodges suddenly has a career path opening up ahead of her. The DAR graduate is well on her way to a job in healthcare rather than having to stay in fast-food work. Her promising future is thanks to Project SEARCH, which links special needs students with employers, such as Marshall Medical Centers.

“I like this a lot better,” said Kayla, 19, comparing her job at Marshall North with working at fast food restaurants.

Kayla will finish her current 10-week rotation working in housekeeping while applying for a job at the hospital. Her dream is to be a personal care assistant. She started her internship working at TherapyPlus, where she got rave reviews from her supervisors.

“I liked it a lot,” she said about working in the gym. “I liked the people I met and I liked cleaning the machines and folding towels.”

Marsha Chadwick, wellness director for TherapyPlus, called Kayla ‘amazing.’

“It has been a great experience with her,” she said.

Kayla is one of 10 high school students working as interns at Marshall Medical Centers through Project SEARCH, a national program that targets students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Project SEARCH group “I’ve been very pleased with how it’s gone,” said Micah Williamson of the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services, which oversees Project SEARCH in the state. Students are typically in their last year of high school when they are selected. The most important criteria for students to be accepted is a desire to achieve competitive employment.

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.

“The goal of Project SEARCH is 100% employment for the Interns,” said Job Coach Ann Kennamer. “We have watched them gain valuable transferrable skills that will allow them to earn meaningful jobs. Some of these jobs will be in the hospital but many will be within the community.”

Project SEARCH aims to change the way people look at those with disabilities. “We are working to change the mindset of the public,” said teacher Beth Hanner. “People with disabilities are just like anyone else, they are better at some things than others. When you find their strengths they can be very valuable, dedicated employees. ”

Job Coaches Kennamer and MacKenzie Lake work for ARC. Another Job Coach, Kira Garlarza, along with Hanner, work for the Marshall County School System.

Jeff Stone, human resources director for Marshall Medical Centers, said students have done very well.

“It’s been a success for us so far,” he said.

In addition to TherapyPlus, students were assigned jobs in day surgery, sterile processing, food service and environmental services. Assignments are intended to help students’ find their strengths. Some are better at paperwork and cleaning than they are at transporting patients, supervisors found. That’s why they rotate every 10 weeks to different departments. The goal is that some of the students will be hired permanently.

Another DAR student, Hannah Patterson, spent the first 10 weeks of her internship working in day surgery at Marshall North where she put together charts and provided drinks to patients.

“I love it here,” she said. “Everyone is so nice.”

Her co-workers are just as positive about Hannah.

“Hannah is a great asset to our department,” said day surgery nurse Jessica Rutherford.

Greg French, director of food services and environmental services at North, had two other students working in his departments during the first rotation and was very pleased with their performances.

“It’s been a very positive experience for us,” he said.

Kayla has just started her rotation in housekeeping and French said he is impressed already.

“Kayla has big dreams and isn’t afraid to go after them,” he said. “For her age, she is very directed and willing to learn new tasks. She is very approachable and has won over many of the staff members here at MMCN. It is exciting to see the progress she is making!”

Students are recognized around the hospitals in their matching brown scrubs monogrammed with the Project Search logo. Following two weeks of classroom instruction at North and South campuses, department managers conduct an orientation with their interns. Then students work 8 am to 3 pm shifts.

At the beginning of the project, Williamson urged hospital staff to treat students like workers so they get the feel of a real job.

“We want them to expand, to grow, not to be babied,” he said. “We want them to work.”

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