Innovative Project SEARCH provides good jobs for participants, great employees for VUMC
The program focuses on training young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities for jobs in health careJanuary 31, 2020
Rashad Ward, a recent Project SEARCH graduate, is one of two job skills coaches with the program.
Terrell Smith, director of Patient and Family Engagement at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, knows a good idea when she hears one.
While attending a conference in Cincinnati nearly 20 years ago, her ears perked up when a fellow nurse shared a story about a novel program she began at her own hospital.
The program, called Project SEARCH, focuses on training young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities for jobs in health care.
“I knew this was a fit for Vanderbilt,” Smith said. “From a nursing standpoint, I thought, ‘How rewarding to see patients you took care of working and having productive lives.’ From the administrative side, it was a great way to meet entry-level employment needs because those jobs traditionally have high turnover rates.
“Getting my foot in the door at Vanderbilt and learning what options I had in the medical field has been incredible for me. I didn’t know these were positions that people with disabilities could have.”
“This program was providing a win-win, not to mention the parents in the hospital seeing someone employed who has a similar diagnosis as their own child. It gives hope to a parent and self-confidence to the students enrolled in the program.”
Smith wasted no time setting up a program. Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt became the first Project SEARCH site in Tennessee, offering students/interns free job training, educational development and employment opportunities within VUMC.
Now 14 years later, the program has trained more than 100 interns and currently employs 56.
One of the graduates, Natalie Schusterman, has taken full advantage of the skills and resources she received while enrolled in the program.
In 2013, Schusterman wasn’t sure what her next step after high school would be. She is thankful that a friend told her about Project SEARCH because her involvement with the training and employment program has expanded her horizons.
“I have high-functioning autism and am so glad there are options for people with disabilities,” she said. “I got into the program and loved the different internships. I got my first job ever at Vanderbilt and it was during that time that I decided I wanted to go to school to get my certified nurse assistance (CNA) license.
“After working as a CNA for five years, I am now in school to get my medical assistant’s license. Getting my foot in the door at Vanderbilt and learning what options I had in the medical field has been incredible for me. I didn’t know these were positions that people with disabilities could have.”
That is just what the doctor ordered for Pam Hollingsworth, the employment services co-director for Progress, Inc., an agency that helps adults with intellectual disabilities live up to their potential through residential programs, supported employment and training services and community-based day support.
Project SEARCH, a nine-month unpaid internship, is a partnership program between VUMC, which serves as the host business site, Progress, Inc., the provider agency and Vocational Rehabilitation, the funding provider.
“The program exceeded my expectations. And it happens to meet one of the initiatives of the hospital’s Strategic Compass — to make diversity and inclusion intentional. This is one of the best and oldest examples Vanderbilt has of that.”
“Project SEARCH fills a business need with qualified individuals living with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” Hollingsworth said. “The interns’ day is very structured and includes job skills training in different departments within the Vanderbilt system. Interns also receive soft skills training, which teaches them how to build a budget, a resume, how to clock in and out, determining and making travel arrangements to and from Vanderbilt as well as how to communicate with supervisors, guests and peers.
“This program continues to produce highly skilled graduates and long-term employees. It has grown at a rapid pace and has experienced such success.”
Vanderbilt is one of 16 Project SEARCH programs in the state. There are more than 500 worldwide.
Rashad Ward is a 2019 graduate of the Amerigroup arm of the program that focuses on teaching administrative and technical skills. It launched in 2017.
Ward recently joined Project SEARCH as one of two job skills coaches.
“I gained so many skills during my internships that really helped me to succeed in the workforce,” said Ward. “Finding yourself, finding your strengths and proving yourself overall is the main goal and that is what we are teaching.
“An intern’s main job is to improve themselves. Doing that will help them become a part of the workforce. I am excited to be a part of this program and a role model for interns.”
Hollingsworth said having a mentor like Ward is priceless.
“He has been on both sides,” she said. “He is confident and able to provide insight that makes him such a good coach.”
Vanderbilt’s program, led by instructor Brandon Pflug, is housed in the basement of Children’s Hospital. With 11 interns, members of this year’s training class attend six-hour training sessions Monday — Friday.
Once interns are hired as part of the workforce at Vanderbilt, Project SEARCH continues to provide support and career guidance.
“The program exceeded my expectations,” Smith said. “And it happens to meet one of the initiatives of the hospital’s Strategic Compass — to make diversity and inclusion intentional. This is one of the best and oldest examples Vanderbilt has of that.”