Breaking Ground 93 - East Tennessee Project Search Collaboration : A guidepost for successful transitions

by Tammy Hearon, Project SEARCH Instructor, Blount County Schools and Devin Stone, Public Information Officer, Tennessee Department of Human Services

Blount County Schools and Maryville College have teamed up with The Access Program and Tennessee Department of Human Services to implement a truly successful Project SEARCH partnership. Project SEARCH® is a one-year internship program for students with disabilities in their last year of high school or for young adults working with a disability service provider. For this partnership, Maryville College serves as the community job site for the interns.

Designed for young adults whose goal is competitive, integrated employment within their communities, the interns get hands-on training, learn work skills, and have real-world opportunities to strengthen their independent living skills. The Tennessee Department of Human Services has helped implement the program, in partnership with organizations across the state, by providing Workplace Readiness Specialists, training, and technical assistance from the national Project SEARCH® organization. Tennessee currently has 10 active Project SEARCH programs.

Parents and students have been very engaged and enthusiastic about the program since it started and are a key part of the team. In addition to the parent and student, the Maryville Project SEARCH team consists of the instructor, Workplace Readiness Specialists, a Maryville College representative, a vocational coordinator, a community resource provider and a Blount County Schools representative. Parents are included at employment meetings, and a core group meets every month to discuss intern progress, direction, expansion of the program and upcoming deadlines.

Maryville College’s Project SEARCH program has resulted in successful employment outcomes for all of its interns since the program began. Blount County Schools launched the program in the 2015-16 school year at William Blount High School with five interns enrolled. Students interned with Metz Culinary Management, which provides dining services at Maryville College. The interns had four rotation options that included the Metz Café dining hall, the dish room, clerical work and housekeeping.

All interns proved to be very good at their jobs, and before the spring semester, Metz had inquired about hiring an intern. By the end of the semester all five of the interns were hired within their communities and remain employed. Besides the Metz Café, employers that hired interns have included Blount County Schools, McDonald’s, Mamma Gillana’s and Lowe’s.

The following school year, the program expanded to include seven more interns from Heritage High School and an additional Metz service rotation. All members of the Blount County Schools’ intern class of 2016-17 were employed by April of 2017 and continue to maintain employment.

In the 2017-18 school year, The Access Program joined the partnership as a community service provider. The Access Program supplies a job coach and follow-along services paid through Vocational Rehabilitation. Currently five interns are enrolled and all have started their employment journey at five different employment sites.

The Blount County Schools/Maryville College Project Search experience is beneficial for all involved for a number of reasons.  Student interns are able to experience campus life and work environments firsthand, while learning skills that help to keep them engaged and employed. Students have expanded their independent living skills by using public transportation provided by the local community action agency to get to and from their work sites. During the past three years, the host business and community have become more aware of the capability of the interns.  When speaking of the job skills at the internship site, the Maryville College Manager of Custodial Services, Mary King, said, “The Project SEARCH interns have proven that they can do the job.”

Metz Culinary Management not only trains interns with a high quality of instruction and work ethic, but also hires interns to be part of their staff. James Dulin, an avid supporter of hiring individuals with disabilities, stated that the Project SEARCH interns at the Metz Café are “contributors”. Blount County Schools has also been a huge partner for hiring interns in their system as well, under the leadership of Karen Helton, Food Nutrition Supervisor.

Regarding the intern he hired, Lowe’s Store Manager, Patrick McConnell, said, “Lester has been a pleasure to work with! He has integrated himself very well into our store and our associates have welcomed him into our Lowe’s family with open arms. We are excited about what Lester’s focus will bring to our team and look forward to his career with us. Lester fits so well into our purpose of helping people love where they live. I am personally excited to see him here every day and look forward to many days together with him!”

To learn more about Project SEARCH® visit: Project SEARCH in TN is currently available through the following partnerships:

  • Downtown Sheraton Hotel, Shelby County School System – Memphis, TN
  • West Tennessee Healthcare, Jackson-Madison County School System – Jackson TN
  • Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, Progress, Inc. – Nashville TN
  • Embassy Suites, Nashville Public Schools – Nashville, TN
  • Amerigroup, Progress, Inc. – Nashville, TN
  • Montgomery County Government, Clarksville/Montgomery County Schools –Clarksville, TN
  • Embassy Suites, Rutherford County Public Schools – Murfreesboro, TN
  • East TN Children’s Hospital, CP Center – Knoxville, TN
  • University of TN Medical Center, Breakthrough Corp. – Knoxville, TN
  • BlueCross/Blue Shield, Hamilton County Schools – Chattanooga, TN (opening August, 2018)

In 2013, the Council on Developmental Disabilities funded and coordinated the expansion of Project SEARCH internship sites across Tennessee. Now, this initiative is overseen by the Department of Human Services, with partnership from the Tennessee Departments of Education and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.