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A stepping stone to adulthood

Dagmawi Yonas enjoys working in Guest Services at Novant Health Matthews Medical Center. He is learning how to navigate the hospital, interact with guests and usher them to various departments in the building.

“There are nice patients,” he said. “I like my team and all the people I work with.”

Dagmawi is getting on-the-job training through Project SEARCH, an international program that aims to secure competitive employment for people with disabilities. The yearlong internship serves Exceptional Children (EC) students, ages 18-22, who have completed their high school core credits and want to find employment. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is in its sixth year with the program, one of many being highlighted as part of disability awareness observances held in October.

“This is like college placement for them – a stepping stone,” said EC teacher Paige Henderson. “We want them to leave here and get a job. We have continuous conversations that the outcome is employment.”

The CMS-Project SEARCH program began in 2017-2018 with one site at Atrium Health Pineville. Last year, the program moved to Novant Health and expanded to two sites – Matthews Medical and Novant Health Huntersville Medical Center. Interns learn soft skills in on-site classes, such as how to make a presentation, write a resume, interview and interact. They also work three 12-week rotations, interning in different areas of the hospital, including Sterile Processing, Environmental Services, Linen and Laundry, and Food and Nutrition. 

Classes are small, with a maximum of eight interns at each site, to ensure there is enough classroom space, as well as rigorous intern possibilities and adequate support. Interns come from high schools across CMS, and while they are learning new skills, they are also educating the people around them. Henderson said expectations are set high, and hospital staff are not to placate the interns, who often help find accommodations for reaching their goals.

“This is the best option for these students – they get to understand that they’re adults,” said Yesenia Rivero, EC job coach. “They are capable, very quick learners, and their department managers are happy. I’m very proud of what we’re doing here.”

Program alumni have found employment in a variety of stores and restaurants, as well as hospitals. An intern from the 2017-2018 class started his job at $15 an hour, without a diploma (interns earn high school Certificates of Completion). In its second year, the program won Project SEARCH’s 2018-2019 Employment Outcome Award with 79% employment.

Henderson said they are continuously surprised by how the interns meet their goals and that they are successful because they finally have a place. She encourages others to look past differences and get to know someone who may not look or sound as they do.

“It’s just getting to know the person rather than the disability,” Henderson said, “because we’re more than our ability, and we’re more than our disabilities. We need to focus on our abilities.”