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Program helps Hall students with disabilities land jobs
School district, Northeast Georgia Medical Center team up for project
State Sen. Butch Miller meets Project SEARCH intern Rosa N’Gouan on Monday at Northeast Georgia Medical Center. - photo by Kristen Oliver

There are more jobs at Northeast Georgia Medical Center than those filled by doctors, nurses and technicians.

There are cooks and mail sorters, people working clerical jobs, manual labor and hundreds of other roles that can be filled by employees of various educational levels.

A partnership between the hospital and the Hall County School District allows students with disabilities to try their hand at a number of these positions.

Project SEARCH is a one-year “high school to work” transition program designed to help students with disabilities transition from the classroom to full-time employment. Participants have completed high school graduation requirements, but they delay graduation a year to remain student interns in the program.

These are students capable of maintaining appropriate work behavior and taking on independent work, according to Project SEARCH instructor Laura Stephens.

“They can do this work, and that’s what this is about,” Stephens said. “Sustainable, gainful employment that anybody can do. These jobs aren’t necessarily hard, but it’s real work. Just because you might have a learning disability, (it) doesn’t mean you can’t do something.”

Students rotate between jobs every few weeks to get an idea of the various careers they could enter.

This week, intern Hannah Peterson worked in-patient rehabilitation.

“I help patients with their needs,” she said. “I make the beds, check vital signs, do charting, pass out trays and do a few other things.”

Intern Angel Morales is currently working in Bright Spot, the hospital’s food court.

“I stock the drinks and the back,” Morales said. “I do Chick-fil-A, make biscuits, sandwiches, fries, all that kind of stuff. I also just started making pizza.”

Morales put his experience at Bright Spot on his resume and recently applied to Cook Out.

“They saw my resume … and hired me on the spot,” he said.

Fellow intern Melissa Yebra was also hired as a result of her work in the program. She worked in the occupational health and safety office, and she was hired full-time in the position.

Her position involves clerical work, updating patient information in the online filing system and making patient appointments by phone.

Last year, more than 83 percent of students in the program were employed by its end. Approximately 65 percent of those jobs were filled by the hospital.

“The main goal of Project SEARCH is for our interns to get hired,” Stephens said. “We have 12 jobs here at the hospital and a few out in the community. But we want help cultivating relationships with other businesses in the community.”

D’Arcy Robb, co-coordinator for Employment First Georgia Coalition, a supporter of Project SEARCH and facet of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, said she is hoping for greater support for the program across the state.

“There are only 13 of these in the state of Georgia,” she said. “The whole state. So most students do not have these opportunities. But if you look at the employment rate for the folks who do this program versus students with disabilities in general, they have a much higher employment rate.”

The program in Hall County received a visit this week from state Sens. Butch Miller and John Wilkinson, who commended the students for their hard work.

“I appreciate the work you do,” Wilkinson told the students Monday. “If you’re willing to work and show up, to get up early like you do, it’ll really pay off for you in the long run. It will be good for all of you.”