Skip to Main Content

Find COVID-19 Information and Resources

Breaking Ground 97 - Project SEARCH: A path to the future

by Jolene Sharp, Chief Public Information officer, Council on Developmental Disabilities

It was a classic light bulb moment. Terrell Smith, Senior Director, Patient and Family Engagement for Monroe Carrell, Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, was listening to a presentation at a national conference. Erin Riehle from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital explained a program she’d founded called Project SEARCH.

“It was a true game changer for me to see young people with developmental disabilities working in a hospital doing meaningful work,” Terrell said. “It opened up a whole new world of possibilities.”

Erin described interns with developmental disabilities thriving in jobs Cincinnati Children’s had previously found hard to fill. Many of the young people went on to permanent employment at the hospital. “Erin was an emergency department nurse with a clinical background similar to mine,” Terrell said. “I was, frankly, ashamed that I had been caring for these children as a nurse and never recognized their potential.”

Just a few miles across town from Vanderbilt, the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities was also interested in Project SEARCH. It didn’t take long for the Council to connect with Terrell and launch Vanderbilt Children’s as the first Project SEARCH site in the state.

Fast forward 14 years. Terrell Smith has an additional title as Vanderbilt’s Project SEARCH Business Liaison. The program has surprised her along the way.

“The program has far exceeded my expectations,” she said. “This is not an act of charity. This is a sound business investment. Vanderbilt has graduates of this program working all over the medical center and in areas off campus.”

Vanderbilt has also learned lessons. One has been the importance of involving parents in setting expectations for the interns’ capabilities and professionalism. “We learned that parents needed to understand that these interns had the potential for real employment, and with real employment comes real responsibilities,” said Terrell.

Ray Vaughns, Manager of Environmental Services, Patient Transporters, and CT1s at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, currently supervises two Project SEARCH interns.

“Our Project SEARCH team members bring another level of energy and appreciation for the jobs we can take for granted,” he said. “This attitude helps each person to appreciate what we have. I have always known the value of diverse work groups, but have been blessed to experience our work environment through the eyes of our Project SEARCH team members.”

Sam Nafzger is one of those team members. Sam said he’s learned safety rules, how to navigate the many hospital floors, and how to properly move beds and cribs. He dreams of permanent employment. “I want a job in this department.”

Ray Vaughns said Project SEARCH shows that employers should hire people with developmental disabilities. “Every organization can benefit from opening their doors to all members of our society and helping them find their voice in your organization.”

More organizations are coming to the same realization. Tennessee currently boasts 16 Project SEARCH sites across the state, with more coming soon. The Council on Developmental Disabilities played a key role in replicating the project across the state, leading to the program’s continued growth.

Two of the newest sites demonstrate the variety that is the future of the program: Wilderness at the Smokies, a Sevierville waterpark resort, and Amerigroup, a managed care company. Both joined the program this year.

Tina Stroupe is a prep chef intern with Wilderness at the Smokies. She is learning many things she didn’t know before and can’t pick a favorite part of the job. Like so many fellow Project SEARCH interns, she has found a vision for her future. “I love everything there,” she said. “I want to keep working as a prep chef in the kitchen.”

Lisa Parm supervises another Project SEARCH intern in her role as Laundry Supervisor for Wilderness at the Smokies. Lisa said Tony Davis brings happiness to his work. “He is helpful and hardworking. I’ve learned that there are people who are willing to work and not afraid to do what’s asked.”

Those contributions have had a positive impact across the organization, said Talent Acquisition Manager Trish Cook. “All of our student interns have integrated into the Wilderness culture beautifully. Not only does this program help our interns to learn about the working world, but also is a positive program for all our employees. It has increased our appreciation of diversity in the workplace.”

Employment Specialist Stephanie Potter said that positive impact has been felt at Amerigroup, as well. Amerigroup is a provider for TennCare’s Employment and Community First (ECF) CHOICES program. ECF CHOICES provides supports for people with disabilities to be as independent as possible. That includes supports for employment. Amerigroup felt it should lead by example in its own workplace.

“While we expected our employees to enjoy the experience [of working with the interns], we’ve been pleasantly surprised at the positive impact Project SEARCH has had on our associates’ understanding of and commitment to the people we serve. We have seen so much growth in the interns, our own associates, and the program as a whole,” Stephanie said.

Rashad Ward takes pride in his growth. “The best part of my job is learning the skills of data-entry, an important trade needed to succeed in the workforce,” Rashad said. “The most important thing I have learned is that every task has a process, and when you learn about the steps needed to complete the tasks and follow them on a daily basis, then you’ll become an expert at what you do.”

Like his fellow interns, Rashad wants to find permanent work in the field he’s learning now. All these interns have excellent chances of doing just that; in 2017, 72% of Tennessee Project SEARCH interns went on to permanent jobs.

Stephanie Potter has words of advice for employers considering Project SEARCH. “Take a leap of faith and try something new. People with disabilities bring more to the workforce than just skills; they bring with them determination, loyalty, commitment, and hard work. The positive impact on your current workforce will astound you!”