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Forum to focus on developmental disabilities
Project SEARCH program partners businesses with schools, rehabilitation
Gage Nieves, 19, a Project SEARCH student, talks about his job at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit Wednesday while Jessica Anderson, center, a registered nurse, and Nancy Perrin, charge nurse, look on at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Public forum

What: Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities hosts discussion about policies and programs that affect those with developmental disabilities
When: 5:30-7 tonight
Where: The Oaks at Lanier Charter Career Academy, 2719 Tumbling Creek Road, Gainesville

At first glance you would never know James Pass has a disability.

The 19-year-old performs his job as a materials technician at Northeast Georgia Medical Center as well, if not better, than others.

But when Pass was 6 years old, doctors discovered a birth defect in his brain that causes him to process information slower than others.

"I can do more things than one, but when you put it together I get confused," he said. "But when you break it down I will listen with quick pace and then I will get it."

Pass is working at the hospital through an internship made possible by the Project SEARCH program. The program has been helping young people with disabilities find employment and internship opportunities since it began four years ago.

Tonight, the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities is hosting a public forum about policies and programs that affect those with developmental disabilities. The event will be 5:30-7 p.m. at The Oaks at Lanier Charter Career Academy at 2719 Tumbling Creek Road in Gainesville.

State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said he hopes to attend and that disability issues are important, given that 6 in 10 households in Georgia have at least one person at some point with a mobile disability.

"That doesn't even include those with a mental disability," Miller said. "That's a staggering number. You get an opportunity to share it firsthand and you hear it firsthand in a heartfelt way what is working and what is not working for the community and that's very important."

Project SEARCH has helped students with disabilities find jobs, while providing their employers with productive workers.

"(Pass is) a joy to work with," said Tracy Underwood, his supervisor. "He comes in here smiling everyday, ready to get started and go to work. Everything we've asked him to do he's just jumped right in there and done it."

Recent high school graduates apply for the program and those selected are provided employment opportunities at partner businesses.

"It's a partnership between the business and the schools and vocational rehabilitation, and our primary goal is employment," said Dottie Adams, statewide coordinator for Project SEARCH. "It's for students with significant disabilities who need that level of intensity of training so they're here all year."

Teachers will often recommend students to the program, and once the students apply they go through an interview process.

Adams said the program helps disabled students transition into life after high school.

"It really has been amazing the transition we see in the young people — how mature they are, the work ethic that they develop," she said. "They have some great skills and are great employees."

Pass has managed to focus on his tasks more than he previously could, he said, all because of his job at the hospital that requires him to stock medical supplies in the correct location.

"This job is using my hands more, using strength, focus and concentration," Pass said. "If I see where it goes and I scan it one time I know where it's going to go no matter how many times I stock it."

"It's made me get past my fears," he added.

Ricky Sish, retail manager at The Bright Spot, a cafeteria inside the hospital, said Project SEARCH provided him with valuable employees.

Currently, he supervises intern Jesse Stephens, 19.

"I'm looking for him to develop tools that he can use as he goes forward in other avenues," Sish said. "He can put on his résumé now that he knows how to stock, rotate, clean and do the kinds of things that any grocery store, convenience store or processing plant would have the same concepts."

Paloma Mendoza, 18, has played a vital role in The Cancer Center's Research Department at Northeast Georgia Medical Center. The department has been in the process of converting patient medical records from paper to electronic records.

"I scan and make sure the files are correct when I scan them to the computer," Mendoza said. "I want to work in an office and I am learning how to scan and making sure I look through all the papers."

Gage Nieves, 19, works in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit cleaning isolettes.

Nieves' duties are vital to the unit, said Nancy Perrin, charge nurse.

"It is very important that we have these clean because, of course, of infection," Perrin said. "He's doing a great job, but we just try to make sure that they're clean at all times so that we decrease any kind of infection that the babies might get."

And Nieves makes certain he does a thorough cleaning job because he doesn't "want babies on his hands dying or anything."

Nieves dreams of becoming a music producer someday and he said Project SEARCH could make that possible.

"It will get me to the top, hopefully," he said.


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