Seven special needs students within the Floyd County Schools system wrapped up a one-year internship at Redmond Regional Medical Center this week, the culmination of one project, but just the beginning of what can be a long, productive life in the workforce.

Project SEARCH is a high school transition partnership between the county schools and Redmond. It is a program that was pioneered in 1996 at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Erin Riehle, director of Cincinnati Children’s Emergency Department, suggested that, because the hospital served individuals with developmental disabilities, it just made perfect sense to offer others in that segment of the population an opportunity to become productive residents within the community.

Students with a variety of developmental disabilities are identified and selected to fill what are quite often high-turnover entry-level positions in the hospital.

Since the program started in Ohio, it has grown to become an international effort.

“We’re so proud of Project SEARCH. It’s all about life skills and job skills and demonstrating you can contribute in the workplace, and these young people have certainly made a contribution here at Redmond,” said hospital CEO John Quinlivan. “I know employers in Rome, Georgia and probably across the country are going to benefit from your skills in years to come.”

Debra Miller, the instructor for the program with Floyd County Schools, said the county school system had been researching the program for several years, and Trina Wood was instrumental in bringing the program to the system when she became director of special education.

The program actually started at Redmond during the 2017-18 school term with three interns. Two of them have gone on to get full-time jobs. Joshua Edwards is employed at Kroger in Rome.

“He just increased his hours and got a raise recently. Brian White is working at Doug’s Downtown Deli part-time,” Miller said.

Miller explained that one of the keys to the success of the program is that students must really want to work after they graduate from high school.

“If that’s their goal then I want to help them get there,” Miller said. “Redmond is a perfect place to do that. There are so many different fields in the hospital that can be matched with the interests of the interns.”

Miller also said that learning soft skills — people skills — has also been one of the big aspects of the program for the students.

“I see a huge, huge difference from the beginning of the year to the end of the year — their self-esteem, communication skills, communication. It’s pretty neat,” Miller said.

The students who participated in the 2018-19 program which concluded last week were Clare Mary Corbett, Model High; Eric Brandon Hodges, Model; William Wesley Latta IV, Model; Jessica Hannah Ruff, Coosa High; Amber Paige Jan Sharp, Model; Brittany Nicole Smith, Pepperell; and Hannah Kearston Gail Thacker, from Armuchee High.

The students worked in the emergency department, environmental services, facilities management, laboratory department, materials management, nutrition department, radiology department and outpatient services.

Sharp jokingly told a crowd at Redmond last week, “When I first started Project SEARCH I thought I was going to get paid. Then I found out we were getting paid with job experience.”

Sharp said she learned that she could work independently. “I’ve learned so many skills to make myself a better employee once I graduate, but most of all I’ve learned that I can do anything that I set my mind to as long as I stay positive,” Sharp said. “It wasn’t easy, but I learned so much.”

Hodges admitted that when he first started in the program he was a little nervous.

“The more I worked, I started getting used to it,” Hodges said. “I kept on improving and noticed that my social skills improved a lot. I also feel more independent. This has been a good experience for me,” Hodges said.

“If someone had told me that I would be responsible for 24 rooms, I would have told them they were crazy,” said Latta. “I didn’t think I would be able to do it by myself, but I did it. In the beginning it took me a while to learn the system, but once I did it, I got faster and faster and better at my jobs. I have learned that I can do more than I thought I could, and I see now how far I’ve come.”

Floyd County Schools Superintendent Jeff Wilson saluted the students on their hard work and the joy they brought to all of the people they worked with during the past year.

Miller said the program would continue next year with six interns already identified to work at the hospital.