Some high school students see class as an obstacle standing in the way of the life that they dream of, while others see it as a key that unlocks a world they never knew would embrace them.
Bradley Schipper falls into the latter category.
“If it wasn’t for my (Project SEARCH) class, I probably would still be stuck (working at a fast-food restaurant) instead of working for the hospital,” said Schipper, a Northeast Georgia Medical Center employee.
“Just the word hospital makes it seem like you have to have a college diploma or something — it didn’t seem like something that I could do. But this program taught me that there is stuff here that a person with special needs can do.”
Project SEARCH is a partnership between Hall County Schools, the medical center and the Georgia Department of Labor Vocational Rehabilitation program. Through SEARCH, students with disabilities learn job skills while gaining hands-on experience. The goal of the program is to help interested students transition from high school directly to the workplace.
During the one-year course, students have the opportunity to go through three job rotations. A few of the job selections include clerical office worker, nutritional services worker and imaging center patient liaison.
“The good thing about the rotations is that besides gaining experience, it also helps the students see what types of jobs they like or don’t like,” said Colleen Pirkle, SEARCH instructor.
For Paul Smith, the rotations helped him to find a perfect fit.
“I worked in housekeeping and as (a Bright Spot nutrition worker),” said Smith, the medical center‘s first recycling tech. “But I like this best.”
As a recycling tech, Smith is responsible for going around the entire hospital and collecting the materials from the many green recycling bins.
“I start with the North Tower when I come in, in the morning,” said Smith. “Then in the afternoon I do the rest.”
In its second year, the program has had 13 graduates — three of which have already been hired by the hospital. Although some businesses may be hesitant to hire workers with disabilities, medical center staff say the experience has been mutually beneficial.
“This has been a great partnership and opportunity to incorporate the students into the workforce,” said Clanfort Robinson, medical center assistant director of environmental services.
“It’s also great because the program provides the students with a job coach and so we show the coach one time what needs to be done and they teach the students.”
Although SEARCH helps the students become even more work ready, it does not offer hand-outs. Students must have a desire to work, be able to take direction and have the ability to effectively communicate with others.
“We have a stringent behavior code that they must adhere to,” said Pirkle. “The students have to comply with the same behavior codes that (the workplace) has for all of their employees.”
Although they work hard, Schipper said it is all worth it.
“It’s non-stop work, but I get to meet a bunch of people every day,” he said. “It’s nice to have your own little department with people you can eat lunch with. I love it here.”