Courtesy of Union County Public Schools


By Deb Coates Bledsoe

“Preparing all students to succeed” isn’t just Union County Public Schools’ motto; it’s a rally call for educators. 

One example of meeting all students’ needs: providing students with significant disabilities the training and skills necessary to enter the workforce after high school graduation.

“For so long in Union County, there has not been anything after high school to assist students, who have significant disabilities, with employment,” said Linda Little, a UCPS Exceptional Children’s transition specialist. 

A brand new program called Project Search, however, is making great leaps in meeting the post high school needs faced by many special needs students.

The program, a partnership between UCPS, Carolinas HealthCare System – Union, InReach and Vocational Rehabilitation, places students in internships for three 10-week periods in a yearlong high school class.

 “Project Search provides the avenue for them to have that intensive training in a vocational setting,” Little said. “It also gives them transferable skills that can be utilized in other places other than a hospital.”

Superintendent Dr. Andrew Houlihan said the goal of the program is for students to come out of the class ready to be hired. “It is a tremendous program. When we talk about college and career readiness for all of our kids, this is a great example of what is being done by our team.”

Michael Lutes, president of Carolina Health Care Systems, said UCPS approached the hospital about two years ago with the idea.

“We’re here to give them opportunities, a chance to shine, but it’s also rewarding to see them shine,” Lutes said. “We knew it was going to be different and we were excited about it, but the passion that all of the students have is just amazing.”

“Our job was to provide them with a classroom and an internship,” said Holli Breeden, the hospital’s manager of human resources. “But it’s been so much more than that.”

The inaugural class began July 23, 2016, with students chosen through an application process. It was opened to high school seniors at least 18 years old. The first class welcomed six students.

Varied Assignments for Each Student

Each student was assigned to a department at the hospital, with a job coach from that department. Over the course of the year, students would do three internships in one of several departments at the hospital.

These departments included the operating room, the hospital’s long-term care facility (the Jesse Helms Nursing Center), the hospital’s rehabilitation department, transportation, dietary and volunteer services.

Breeden said once the department was chosen for the intern, the job coach from that department decided what skills and opportunities were available for that intern to learn.

“They get an orientation,” Breeden said. “It’s like bringing a new employee into the department.”

On a typical day, students arrive at the hospital about 8:45 am, get their badges, and go to their internship area where they work until about 12:30 pm. They have lunch for about 30 minutes then return to the classroom for instruction from 1 pm to 1:45 pm.

Their teacher, Amanda Ort, said classroom lessons include team-building skills, hospital policies, hospital safety measures, proper sterilization processes and resume preparation.

Ort said she has enjoyed seeing how much the students have grown. “They’ve come so far. Just to see that growth and how excited they are, how far they’ve come, it’s just a joy to come to work.”

InReach job coach Wukari Hathaway has been working with students throughout the year. “The different job skills that they’ve learned in dietary, for example, are such things as food preparation. In environmental services they get the rooms in the operating room cleaned and prepped for surgery. There is also clerical work in each department.”

High school senior Chase Bost interned in the dietary department during his second internship.

“Making cookies is the bomb. I’m enjoying it,” he said. “I want to be a chef. I most like making cookies. My favorite is sugar cookies. I also make sandwiches and salads.”

During his first internship, Chase worked at the Jesse Helms Center. “I liked working with the seniors. I most enjoyed doing bingo with them. At the end of the day, I played the piano for them.”

His next and final internship will be in environmental services where he will assist in the preparation of the O.R.

High school senior Alex Rotar’s first internship was in the gift shop, while his second was in patient rehabilitation. Part of both jobs included some type of clerical work.

“I like the paperwork the best,” Alex said. “I worked in the gift shop before Rehab. I did barcodes and pricing, greeting people, and paper work.”

Alex did such a good job in Rehab, that some patients gave him gifts when they left. Gina Young, an outpatient coordinator, said Alex would be missed when he transitioned to another internship.

“He’s a hard worker and is very serious about getting his job done,” Young said. “One day we were trying to get him to go to lunch and he said, ‘They’ll be down there when I get down there.’ He wanted to finish his job. He wants to learn more and he wants to help people. The one thing we have to do is slow him down.”

"They hate when they have to miss a day"

“The students take pride in their work,” Little said. “They really enjoy it. They hate when they have to miss a day. They love being here.”

Alex and Chase have enjoyed the program so much they’ve spoken to other prospective students about joining the program. “We told them they should come to Project Search because it’s a lot of fun,” Chase said.

Jennifer Carter-Barber, director of programs at InReach, said after the internship, students leave the program with letters of recommendation and experience that helps them get competitive employment.

“These kids are awesome,” she said. “It’s great to see them grow from the time they come into the program until the end. They’ve learned so many skills, but they are also more confident.”

Although there is no guarantee that the hospital will hire the students after their internships, Lutes said that is a possibility.

“We’re always looking for talented teammates that can make a difference at the facility. This is a great opportunity for the students during the internship to show us the difference they can make and that’s exactly what we’ve seen.” Lutes said.

This six person inaugural class of Project Search graduated in June, and the next class will begin in July.

“When we started this program, we thought it was the right thing to do,” Lutes said. “We felt we could add value and make a difference, but as we reflect on the past eight months, we are truly the ones who are benefiting.

“The impact these students have on us, the smiles they bring to us, and the difference that they make, it’s just incredibly rewarding for the teammates, and that’s why the departments are fighting over them because it’s a breath of fresh air,” Lutes added. “When you’re having a tough day, and they can bring a smile to your face, that’s why we’re here.”

“They’ll never forget us,” Alex said.

The hospital staff seems to agree.