A special needs program decided to celebrate Exceptional Children’s Week by recognizing the organization that makes its existence possible.
Project SEARCH, a one-year on-the-job training program that gives special needs students in Bartow County schools a chance to gain transferrable skills and employment by graduation, honored Cartersville Medical Center earlier this month for allowing its students to work as interns in such hospital departments as central sterilization, maternity, food and nutrition services, plant operations, day surgery and outpatient treatment for the past six years.
Kim Chester, a co-teaching support teacher and parent mentor for the school system and a Project SEARCH mentor, hosted a recognition program March 7 to thank the hospital for “being such a wonderful host site” for Project SEARCH.
“We did not want to let this week go by without a special recognition for Project SEARCH and Cartersville Medical Center,” she said at the event. “Even though my words will be inadequate to fully describe your impact, we want to try and express our appreciation for your willingness and your courage to look beyond the disability to see the abilities in our students. What you do every day proclaims loudly to our community that our students are valuable and have much to offer. You give our students a sense of belonging and purpose, something most of us desire in our lives.”
On the guest list for the event were CMC administrators and representatives from all departments that have supported the program, past and current Project SEARCH interns, past and current Project SEARCH teachers Kristy Mitchell and Jennifer Hyde and job coach Amber McCurley, program mentors, school board members and central office administrators.
CMC CEO Chris Mosley said the hospital staff was “honored and humbled” by the recognition it received from Chester and Project SEARCH.
“Our hospital’s mission is, ‘Above all else, we are committed to the care and improvement of human life,’ and we felt that by offering our facility as a site for a Project SEARCH class, the interns would be able to gain real-world experience in the workforce and, in so doing, that we would be living up to our mission,” he said.
During the event, Chester, whose 19-year-old daughter, Haley, is an intern this year, explained how she came across Project SEARCH in 2011 while serving on the Georgia Council for Developmental Disabilities and worked with her director, program organizers, the school system superintendent and hospital administrators to get it up and running for the 2013-14 school year.
She also expressed her appreciation for Mitchell and McCurley, who “helped to shape and define the program from the very beginning.”
“They truly were the boots on the ground, working hard each and every day to train interns and help them reach high expectations,” she said. “They worked hard and never seemed to be deterred by challenges but rather to accept the challenge and find a way to either use the challenge to the interns’ benefit or find a path to success around that challenge. I have always stood in awe at what these two ladies were able to accomplish in one year’s time.”
Chester also said there was concern about who would replace Mitchell when she announced she was leaving the program to take the position of REACH Georgia coordinator at the central office.
“I mean, those are hard shoes to fill, but … Jennifer Hyde became our new Project SEARCH teacher in the middle of last year, and with Kristy and Amber’s help and guidance, she has kept the program steadily moving forward,” she said. “She is resourceful and compassionate and determined.”
Finally, Chester talked about how the program has personally impacted her as she’s watched her daughter, who has cerebral palsy, work hard to reach her goal of being a Project SEARCH intern and take full advantage of what it has to offer.
“What Haley has gained through this program and through your belief that she can contribute to society isn’t easily quantified with data, but please know the impact you have made on our lives will forever be with us,” she said. “When you positively impact one person’s life, it doesn’t stop there. That one person is empowered by what you’ve given them and uses it to help others.”
She also thanked the hospital, school system officials and Project SEARCH team for “touching our lives in such a personal and meaningful way, truly life changing.”
After she finished her remarks, Chester asked Hyde and McCurley to present certificates that she had made to each department.
“There were tears but mostly from hospital staff who have been touched by our interns,” she said. “Time and again, staff from the hospital, through tears, would reiterate how much our interns have touched their lives and how much they truly contribute to the hospital. Several said that when our interns are out for school holidays, such as Thanksgiving or Christmas, that they truly miss them and can't wait for them to return.”
Mosley agreed that the interns have had a major impact on the staff members who work with them.
“Our initial thought was that we were contributing something positive to the community by having Project SEARCH in our hospital,” he said. “Over the course of time, however, our staff have been enriched by the interactions with the interns, and I feel we’ve been blessed by the program as much as the interns have.”
And the staff does miss the students when they’re not on-site, especially after they graduate.
“It’s exciting to see the interns progress over the course of the year as you watch them develop work and social skills,” Mosley said. “While graduation is a proud day for all of us, it’s bittersweet because they truly become a part of our team, and we know we’ll miss them.”
Chester — who was “so pleased” with the event and how it “seemed to truly touch the hospital” — said when Exceptional Children's Week and the people who contribute to the success of students with disabilities were being discussed, “Project SEARCH was first on my mind.”
“We sincerely appreciate the hospital and know that our students are successful in part due to how awesome CMC is as a host site,” she said. “The hospital doesn't look on our interns with pity. They look beyond their disabilities and see their unique abilities.”
And she knows firsthand that the program has given her daughter, who is in a wheelchair, a “sense of belonging and worth” by allowing her to do such jobs as filling buckets with baby supplies for the newborns, stocking drawers in the emergency room, making patient-information booklets, placing blankets in the warmers, tearing apart hospital bracelets and delivering newspapers.
“I can speak personally that this program has deeply touched my child,” Chester said. “She feels needed, enjoys her jobs and has an increased feeling of worth. She has gained many job skills and learned a lot socially. She has been pushed to be her best and then more.”