Local schools have continued to earn recognition for the success of a unique program that helps special-needs students develop the required skills to find jobs once they leave high school.

Project Search is an international internship program the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) has participated in since 2013. In the past five years, it has helped more than 50 special-needs students find employment at a number of businesses in the Mobile community.

“You see them mature a lot, and we really work with our students on developing independence,” Christine Wells, a Project Search teacher and team leader, said. “One thing I love, though, is working with the parents of these children because they are always told what their child cannot do, then they come into this program and we’re telling them what they can do … if you let them.”

Project Search is open to students in their last year of high school. Instead of reporting to a typical classroom, Project Search participants spend their senior year at a Project Search training site. Mobile Infirmary, which has been involved since 2013, is one of two MCPSS host sites. The other, Providence Hospital, has served as a host site for the last four years.

Wells, a MCPSS special education teacher, said students in Project Search split their time between developing soft skills in her classroom, such as interviewing, budgeting, time management and working with others, and on-the-job training with employee mentors at each hospital.

Based on their individual interests and abilities, students can train and ultimately work in a number of areas throughout the facilities, including stocking and delivery, food service, sterilization, environmental services, dishwashing, clerical services, patient transport and a number of others.

Some students even work more directly with patients, like those who intern in Mobile Infirmary’s E.A. Roberts Alzheimer’s Center. Wells said the center is particularly popular among students interested in pursuing a career in nursing or some other area of the medical field.

“We have a lot of young ladies who want to be nurses, and that can sort of help teach them whether they really want to pursue that,” she added. “One of the good things about having options is that the students can learn what they like but also what they don’t like.”

James, an 18-year-old student at B.C. Rain High School, is one of nine students currently working at the Providence Hospital training site. Last month he told Lagniappe he’s worked in a couple of different areas during his time in the program and has learned a lot.

“It’s been difficult at points,” he admitted. “I was in sterilization, helping with wiping down drills and packaging the [surgical] tools, but now I’m working at the dish room at the cafeteria.”

Though he ultimately hopes to work in animation, James said he is hoping to use the skills he’s developed in Project Search to pick up a job as a dishwasher in the meantime.

While the classroom and on-the job training are key to developing critical soft skills, the ultimate goal of the program is to help students find and maintain a job. That’s why most of skills the students focus on — food service, dishwashing, paperwork, etc. — are very transferable.

However, one of the unique things about Project Search is the ability to continue that mission even after the students have graduated by partnering with a number of local and state agencies.

Outside of MCPSS and the hospitals serving as training sites, Project Search also brings state agencies focusing on vocational rehabilitation, mental health and education to the table along with the Alabama Council on Developmental Disabilities and others.

Volunteers of America Southeast (VOA) also plays a pivotal role in the process by providing job coaches who not only work with students throughout their on-the-job training but also canvass the community to find businesses interested in hiring the students when the program ends.

Because VOA already works with special-needs individuals as part of its larger mission, those same job coaches are able to help Project Search graduates and their employers adjust to changes at their jobs long after they’ve left the program.

April Brooke, a VOA job coach who works at the Mobile Infirmary site, said it can be difficult to convince some businesses to consider the students because of preconceptions about what someone with a disability can or can’t do on the job. However, she added, most participating businesses are very happy with their employees.

Project Search intern Lorenzo Hayes working in the cafeteria at Mobile Infirmary. (MCPSS)

“Yes, they have a disability, but what we focus on are their abilities, and the good thing with having a job coach is we’re able to go in and work alongside them and help them as they transition into that new job,” Brooke told Lagniappe.

Dozens of local businesses have hired Project Search graduates, and according to Wilyndra Moss, who oversees the program for MCPSS, some local companies have actually reached out to the program looking to hire employees or serve as a training site in the future.

Over the past six years, the average rate of students who’ve achieved employment through the program has hovered at around 80 percent — something MCPSS and its partnering agencies have been recognized for multiple times at national Project Search conferences.

Of the 46 students who’ve participated at Mobile Infirmary since 2013, 36 have found employment and, according to Brooke, some of those who didn’t either moved or had extenuating family situations that prevented them from retaining a job.

At Providence Hospital, 31 students have gone through the program over the past four years, and 18 of them have found employment. Data collected by VOA indicates those students earn wages ranging from $7.75 to $11 an hour and work anywhere from 15 to 40 hours a week.

In addition to students and their families, Moss said Project Search has been a benefit to participating business. She said many of the companies that have hired graduates, including Providence and Mobile Infirmary, have reported a positive change to their employee culture.

“We’re still trying to get the word out to more businesses and encourage them to give our students a chance,” she said. “What do you have to lose? How many people are coming to your door and bringing a team that’s going to be there to help an employee transition into a job?”