JONESBORO

Many young adults with disabilities find it hard to find or keep a job, however St. Bernards now has a program that is designed to help known as Project SEARCH.

St. Bernards Director of Education and Organizational Development Amy Findley said that Project SEARCH is an ACCESS Initiative in partnership with Arkansas Rehabilitation Services that trains young adults with developmental disabilities for competitive employment opportunities.

In fact, Findley said St. Bernards is the first and only site in Northeast Arkansas to host Project SEARCH.

“We started the program in 2017 in a partnership between Arkansas Rehabilitative Services (ARS) and ACCESS out of Little Rock,” she said.

According to the Project SEARCH website, ACCESS is a non-profit organization offering evaluations, therapy services, education and vocational training for individuals with special needs.

Findley said Project SEARCH assists individuals 18 to 35-years-old with documented disabilities, such as autism, blindness or attention disorders.

The application process is simple she said, “They just have to complete an application, followed by an interview and assessment.”

“The program teaches job skills as well as life skills,” Findley said, noting that the program assists individuals with the preparation required to gain and keep employment.

“Project SEARCH consists of three 10-week internships and then they graduate,” she said. “Plus we follow their progress and help our graduates for two years afterward.”

“St. Bernards has hired 14 of our graduates as well,” Findley added, noting that the program at St. Bernards has had 50 graduates so far who work in various vocations.

Employment categories include patient transport, central supply, mail room clerk, administrative specialist, dietary aid, patient care tech, steward, processing associate, equipment manager, receiving room coordinator and kennel tech.

Project SEARCH Skills Trainer Jessica Blevins said that the participants come from all across Northeast Arkansas.

“They come from different backgrounds,” Blevins said, “and the transformation is wonderful.”

Project SEARCH Instructional Coordinator Mary Housewright said that it is almost unbelievable to see their progress sometimes.

“We have even had people with masters degrees come through the program,” she said. “Because even though they were super smart, they lacked the skills to maintain a job.”

Blevins noted that they have had participants straight out of school high, as well as some with college and trade schools degrees.

Recent Project SEARCH graduate Jordan Lunsford said on Friday that the program has been life changing for her. Even though Lunsford held a college degree, her communication skills made it hard for her to keep a job.

“Through Project SEARCH, I have learned to communicate my struggles,” Lunsford said.

She said she had always struggled with not only her communications skills, but also other issues such as time management. However, she liked to be active and to interact with people.

Blevins said that is where they come in by teaching their clients to figure out their strengths and weaknesses and how to manage them.

“As Jordan began to learn valuable social and work skills, she became a more focused and self-confident young woman,” Blevins said.

Lunsford recalled her first internship in central supply, during which she had issues reading the map they provided. Devondre Hince, another Project SEARCH skills trainer at St. Bernards found an app that helped her in place of the map.

Thanks to Hince, or “Tech D” as they call him, central supply has began to use the app for everyone.

Hince said that it is their job to identify what the program participants struggle with and to make accommodations.

“Now Jordan is going to be a hostess at the Craighead County Nursing Center,” Housewright said, also noting the progress of another graduate of the program named Robbie.

“Robbie struggles with getting distracted,” Housewright said. “So, Devondre made him a special board to help, which benefited both him and the employer.”

“We work with employers as well as graduates to make it the best fit,” she said.

“We even found a job for a blind participant,” Findley added.

Blevins expressed that they are all proud of their graduates and their accomplishments, such as a graduate named Katie, who had several issues but after she built her confidence, she now has her driver’s license, a car and is even buying a house.

“They are going through so many different things than other people, but they are committed and they want to work and be a part of their community,” Blevins said.

Findley also complimented the team at Project SEARCH for their work in helping the interns and noted how supportive Jonesboro Mayor Harold Copenhaver had been of the program and its graduates as well.

“He has hired several of our graduates and noted how committed they are,” she said.

Housewright said that most of the graduates no longer want or need government assistance.

“They make the job so easy for us, and we love our jobs so much,” she said.

Project SEARCH, which actually started in Cincinnati, Ohio, is an international program with over 600 sites world wide, Housewright said.

“It even has a site in Iceland,” she bragged, “and not just at hospitals, but hotels, high schools, colleges and many other places. There are seven sites in Arkansas alone, but we are the only site in Northeast Arkansas.”

Lunsford reiterated how beneficial Project SEARCH had been to her.

“I struggled to find the right fit but Project SEARCH helped me to realize the right fit and best environment for me,” she said. “It helped me to understand my struggles and how to explain those struggles to others and build self confidence.”

“She is now her own greatest advocate,” Housewright said.

Lunsford encourages others to apply to the program, saying “They should come to the program because it will help them find their environment and their right fit, too. They will figure out their struggles and will learn how to deal with them. It was difficult, but very worth it.”

Findley added, “That is why we push them, because we know that they are capable and they can do more then they know.”

For more information about Project SEARCH Arkansas, visit its website at projectsearcharkansas.org.