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Over the last seven years, ECU Health Medical Center (VMC) has partnered with organizations across eastern North Carolina to host Project SEARCH for exceptional Pitt County students.

Project SEARCH is an international transition program that provides real life work experiences to high school graduates with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The one-year program helps students learn various marketable skills that can help them gain employment after graduation from the program.

Lisa Lassiter, director of workforce development at Vidant Health, said Pitt County Schools approached Vidant about the possibility of partnering in the program. She took the lead on the Vidant side and attended meetings, worked with community partners and, with support and approval from senior leaders at the hospital, had a classroom for these students created at VMC.

Lassiter said she is grateful for the program, the students, community partners and everyone involved.

“I think this program and these kids have taught me more than I have ever been able to expose to each of them,” Lassiter said. “I was very limited in what I knew about exceptional children when the program began and they have opened my eyes and amazed me many times.”

Seven years in, the 2021-22 Project SEARCH class is the largest to date with nine students. These students spend time in the classroom learning employable skills and go out to internship sites throughout different departments at VMC to practice and refine these skills.

A Shining Example

For students that have an internship experience at the VMC cafeteria, they get a chance to work with a program graduate.

David Jenkins is a utility worker and is a direct supervisor for the Project SEARCH interns placed in the main cafeteria. Jenkins graduated from the program in 2019 and said he loves helping those going through their internships.

“I enjoy that a lot. I get to teach them about stuff that I know and I can sit back and watch them grow because of things that they learn from me,” Jenkins said. “Hopefully that will help them be a better citizen in this community.”

Jenkins had opportunities to intern in different areas throughout VMC during his year with Project SEARCH but enjoyed working in the cafeteria most. He said he felt a breakthrough when he asked to join team meetings during his internship and learned a lot about team goals.

He said it was important for him to go through the program and learn the important skills that have set him up for success today.

“My favorite part of going through the program was pretty much experiencing stuff that would be like the real world, such as advocating for myself, learning how to manage money, working with other people and how to interact with other people,” Jenkins said.

Katie Nagler Houmard, Project SEARCH instructor, said she was proud to see Jenkins’ growth from his time as a shy student to the leader he is today. She also said it’s important for current students to see what they can accomplish with Jenkins setting the example.

“We’ve seen that when they hear it from someone who has been where they are, they’re much more likely to really grasp it and take the advice,” Houmard said. “Sometimes when we tell them something, they could think, ‘What do you know? You’ve never been in my shoes.’ I think it’s inspiring for our current students to see him now in his role and working as part of the team at Vidant. It definitely gives them a good goal to work toward.”

Quintequa Weaver, Project SEARCH job coach, agrees. “I think just seeing him be a role model to the kids now is such a great thing to see,” she said.

It Takes a Village

Lassiter said community partnerships are an important part of what makes the program so special. While VMC hosts the classroom and offers the locations for internships, other community organizations contribute so much.

Pitt County Schools provide a teacher and identify students who make great candidates. RHA Health Services offers up a job coach to help students learn skills and work with them to find positions after graduation. On a state level, the North Carolina Council on Developmental Disabilities and North Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation provide support as well.

Internally to Vidant, team members who support the program are invaluable. Bernard Dixon, assistant manager for Central Services at VMC, is one of many team members who supports Project SEARCH and students going through the program. He said he appreciates the opportunity to work with these exceptional students and help them grow as team members.

When a student is preparing for an internship, they go through the typical steps that any team member would take before joining a department.

“They come down and they interview for the position as a typical employee would and we sit down and talk with them,” Dixon said. “Once we sit down and talk, we find out what exactly they can do and what their skill level is. Once we determine what their skill level is, we treat them just like we would any other employee.”

He has found that as he works with the students in Project SEARCH, once they are comfortable in their role, they often exceed expectations. He said supporting the students—and not putting labels or limitations on them while also helping them learn employable skills—is the most important thing his team can do.

“We don’t want them to be labeled or anything like that,” Dixon said. “It’s not about saying they can’t do this or they can’t do that – no. Let them do what they do. We find out that a lot of them can do more than we think they can.”

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