Breaking Ground 94 - Gaining Skills for the Real World

by the BlueCross BlueShield of TN Project SEARCH Steering Committee
several people in a classroom standing around a table, working on a food preparation activity
University of Tennessee Ag Extension June Puett teaches Camp Work Readiness participants, Marlon Kennemore and Martin Boatwright, how to prepare a nutritious meal.

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 Tennessee Department of Human Services - Vocational Rehabilitation, with partnership from the Departments of Education and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. This BlueCross BlueShield site marks the 10th Project SEARCH program hosting interns in TN.

On August 8, 2018, eight students from Hamilton County schools joined the hustle and bustle of the workday at the Chattanooga campus of BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee as interns. These are no ordinary interns, though - they are the inaugural class of the newly established Project SEARCH program in Chattanooga.

Project SEARCH® is designed to give young adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities valuable work experience. Originally founded in 1996 by Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, the program has since been implemented in communities across the country and in several other countries around the world.

Liftoff for Scenic City students

Establishing Project SEARCH in Chattanooga has long been a goal for the Hamilton County Department of Education (HCDE). A lack of specialized job-training resources means many young adult students with intellectual and developmental disabilities end up at home and unemployed after completing high school.

“These are students who are aging out of many of their supportive services,” said Project SEARCH Liaison Jennifer Allison, who is also an Exceptional Education Lead Teacher for Secondary Programs in HCDE. “These individuals have demonstrated the capacity to learn and grow and contribute to the community, but there are few resources available to help them develop the kind of life and professional skills that would enable them to seek competitive employment.”

In order for the program to operate in Chattanooga, a company had to be willing to take it on to serve as the host business for internships. The BlueCross involvement in Project SEARCH began when Stephani Ryan, Vice President of BlueCare CHOICES - which provides home- and community-based supports to individuals with various disabilities - connected with HCDE Exceptional Education Supervisor Mitzi Delker and Project SEARCH's co-founder Susie Rutkowski at a conference.

“Our company's Employment and Community First (ECF) program within BlueCare CHOICES is all about helping people with disabilities participate in their community at the highest level possible,” Stephani said. “Supporting Project SEARCH was a natural fit.”

Setting the stage for success

The Project SEARCH Steering Committee, comprised of representatives from BlueCross Human Resources department, HCDE, Siskin Hospital and Tennessee Department of Human Services - Vocational Rehabilitation Services (TDHS/VR), took on the task of developing and implementing Project SEARCH in BlueCross’s Chattanooga office. The process, which began last fall, involved identifying a series of different jobs that students could rotate through during their internships, as well as determining how many internship slots would be available.

“These interns require more hands-on direction than the typical employee, and they have different skill sets,” said Laura Hessler, Manager of Talent Acquisition in Human Resources. “We needed to make sure that we accounted for those things in determining which areas might be able to support an intern.”

The Project SEARCH Steering Committee provided guidance to assist the BlueCross HR staff in developing opportunities that account for the different needs and strengths of Project SEARCH participants. “We wanted to help BlueCross develop an environment where these young people can flourish and advance their skill sets while providing a truly useful service to the company,” said Tiffany Ramsey, Regional Supervisor with TDHS/VR.

In the early spring, prospective interns and their parents/guardians attended a series of meetings at BlueCross headquarters to learn more about the program. Vocational Rehabilitation and Siskin Hospital staff also worked with HCDE to prepare the students for internship opportunities. “Our collective goal was to set everyone up for success,” said Wendy Evett, HCDE Instructor for Project SEARCH. “Proper preparation helps ensure that everyone has a good experience, and that the interns acquire skills that can be useful in gainful employment out in the community.”

A field of 13 candidates was whittled down to eight finalists after conducting interviews and skills assessments involving BlueCross employees and staff from HCDE, TDHS/VR, and Siskin Hospital. “During the skills assessments, prospective interns performed a series of tasks such as moving materials, sorting mail, entering information from phone messages into a spreadsheet and constructing furniture,” said Siskin Hospital's Community Re-entry Specialist Mark Heydt, who is the Lead Skills Trainer for Project SEARCH. “The students also answered questions about their interests and desire to work, which gave us an idea of their interpersonal communication abilities.”

Heading to camp

The chosen eight participated in a week-long Camp Work Readiness program at Hixson High School in mid-June, which included training on a variety of practical and professional skills such as reading and following a bus schedule for transportation to and from work. The group also had the opportunity to talk through different workplace scenarios and practice their business communication skills, including eye contact and appropriate greetings.

At the end of the Camp, each intern participated in mock interviews with volunteers from BlueCross and other area businesses including Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and Signal Centers, as well as HCDE administrators. “Getting to meet and talk with the students was a great honor,” said BlueCross HR Service Unit Manager Linda Atkins, who served as one of the mock interviewers. “It was wonderful to see how eager they are to learn and develop skills for gainful employment.”

Gaining experience

The Project SEARCH interns, all of whom are in their last year of high school, are on the BlueCross campus from 8 am to 3 pm every day, and follow the schedule of the school year. The group begins their workdays in a classroom, discussing plans for each day and working through a Project SEARCH® curriculum that includes lessons on how to get and keep a job, health and wellness, technology, self-advocacy and more.

After a two-week orientation and training period in August, interns embarked on the first of their three consecutive 10-week internships in the company. They rotate through roles in different divisions, from clerical work with BlueCare Tennessee and the Member Benefits Administration, to facilities support with Properties and Administrative Services and custodial roles with Environmental Services.

“Each department involved in this initiative provides a mentor, someone the intern can go to with questions and rely on for support,” said Project SEARCH's Susie Rutkowski. “A Project SEARCH instructor or skills trainer works with each intern to learn new tasks in the various areas as the internship progresses.”

By the end of the program in May 2019, each participant will have developed a robust set of skills and experience to add to their résumé, which will hopefully help them secure a paying job in the community after their time with Project SEARCH.

“This is an opportunity for these interns to get a job and go on with their lives, just like their counterparts in high school are doing,” Susie said.

Parents of Chattanooga’s new Project SEARCH students are optimistic about the impact the program will have on their children. “My son wants to move forward,” said Angela McReynolds, mother of Project SEARCH intern D’Angelo McReynolds. “He wants to go out in the world and get a job and a paycheck. This program gives him hope for the future to not be looked at differently because of his disability.”