LUMBERTON — On Friday, Robeson Community College held a special commencement for its Project SEARCH graduates.
The program is part of a grant secured by RCC in partnership with NC Vocational Rehabilitation Services and UNC Health Southeastern in 2015 to serve individuals who may have intellectual or physical disabilities and need help with work and educational services. It also teaches students the necessary work skills needed to gain employment.
“Partnering with UNC Health Southeastern on this grant was a natural fit,” said James Mitchell, the director of Career and College Readiness programs at RCC. “The national model for this program was partnered with a hospital, so it has worked out well.”
The RCC Project SEARCH Class of 2023 graduated six students – Coleman Lennon, Dewey Price, Henry Price, Issac Avila, Mackenzie Bulla, and Tomaris Lewis – all of which have been given part-time employment opportunities with UNC Health Southeastern.
“Our program was one of the very few that had these results,” said Mitchell. “In the first year, all students intern with job placement… and some departments at the hospital were fighting over which of these students were going to be working with them… so it’s been an amazing accomplishment from this program that all six were hired before graduation.”
Selected students go through a skills assessment and an interview to determine eligibility. They may be referred to the program by NC Works or the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Vocational Rehabilitation Services.
Without Project SEARCH, Mitchell says that many of these individuals would simply fall through the system.
“After they finish high school, they and their families are looking for what’s next,” said Mitchell. “Without this training program, the lack of exposure and opportunity, these students could not grow…. They need more of a detailed and structured process to expand their horizons and understand the working world of work and to gain more independence.”
One graduate from a previous class credits Project SEARCH for her success.
“Brittany Paige Jones started her own business after completing Project SEARCH and is now an entrepreneur,” said Mitchell. “She and her Mom started Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy Lemonade, a thriving business in Robeson County.”
It’s stories like that, and having an opportunity to see students succeed that Mitchell says makes it all worth it.
“It’s what you work for, to make a difference for our students,” said Mitchell. “The right partnerships will get these results… it shows the world what these students can do, and it’s really what they strive for.”
RCC President Melissa Singler agrees.
“It was a really, really special ceremony,” RCC President Melissa Singler said. “It was very moving and definitely one of those ‘feel-good moments’ to be able to witness this graduation and to hear of the success of these amazing students. I congratulate them all on completion of the program and on achieving employment with UNC Health Southeastern. I wish them all the best on their future endeavors.”
Project SEARCH is sponsored by Robeson Community College, UNC Health Southeastern, Acceleration Education Services, and the NC Vocational Rehabilitation Services. Project SEARCH also thanks its community partners and vendors for all their efforts and time in helping make the 2023 graduation a success – The High Place LLC for Catering, Digital Connect 2 the Digital World for Audio/Visual services, Burney and Burney Construction for Training Tools, M Designs $ Officiant Services for their Décor, and LS Occasions for its Balloon Art.
For more information on Project SEARCH, please contact James Mitchell at 910-272-3608 or [email protected].
About Project SEARCH
Project SEARCH was developed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, a research environment that fosters visionary thinking and innovation. It began in 1996 when Erin Riehle was the director of Cincinnati Children’s Emergency Department.
The hospital served individuals with disabilities and thought the hospital should commit to hiring people within this group. She sought to discover ways to train those with developmental disabilities to fill high-turnover, entry-level positions in her department that involved complex and systematic tasks such as stocking supply cabinets. Erin presented her ideas to Susie Rutkowski, then special education director at Great Oaks Career Campuses. It was at that time that Erin and Susie formed a partnership and launched Project SEARCH.
The organization has now grown to an expanding international network of sites, including Robeson Community College. Project SEARCH’s primary objective is to secure competitive employment for people with disabilities.
Cheryl Hemric is the public information officer at Robeson Community College. Contact her at 910-272-3241 or [email protected].