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 Scott Huff participates in Project Search by working in the print shop at the materials management facility for Carilion Clinic. He is one of 12 students in the program in this region.

 Photo by JEANNA DUERSCHERL The Roanoke Times

Project Search provides opportunities to students with disabilities, and employers can consider hiring them after their internships end.

By Sheila Ellis

Tamara Thomas, 18, has her own office complete with a leather-bound navy blue diploma from William Fleming High School atop her metal filing cabinet and a photo of her boyfriend on her desk.

It’s hard for her high school counselor to believe, because when Thomas was a freshman, she was painfully shy and uninterested in school, said Cindy Goldstein, transition specialist at William Fleming.

Thomas has a milder variant of an autistic disorder called Asperger’s syndrome. It affects her social skills mostly, said her mother, Katina Thomas. It’s hard for shy, introverted Tamara Thomas to make eye contact with people.

During Thomas’ senior year, Goldstein advised her to apply for a national program called Project Search, aimed at giving students with disabilities on-the-job training through internships to compete for jobs. She is now one of 12 students in the Roanoke Valley involved in the competitive program’s first year in Roanoke.

Thomas is an unpaid intern at a materials management facility for Carilion Clinic. There she keeps track of medical supplies for health care facilities.

“I really like my job here. People are so nice and treat me with respect,” she said.

Thomas’ goal is to get a permanent job with benefits and to be independent, she said.

Students such as Thomas rotate through work sites at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, the Carilion Clinic materials management facility and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. They work in various departments including nursing, materials management and food service.

Because Thomas is in a work environment where she has to communicate with people around her, she is talking more and becoming less shy, her mother said.

“Already in a short time, I have seen her coming out of her shell,” she said.

There are more than 40 Project Search programs nationwide. Roanoke’s program is one of five in the state and boasts the largest and most diverse collaborative effort in Virginia.

Partners in the program include school systems in Roanoke and Roanoke County, Botetourt and Franklin counties, and Salem; the Virginia Department of Rehabilitative Services; Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare; local parent representatives; Goodwill Industries of the Valleys; Carilion Clinic; and Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Research Institute.

Funding for the program comes from each school district and the Department of Rehabilitative Services. Goodwill operates the program.

Students in the program must have a developmental and/or other significant disability, communicate effectively, meet state eligibility requirements and have independent daily living skills among other criteria.

Students attend morning classes at the Virginia Tech Carilion medical school that teach them career and life skills before heading to their internships for the rest of the day. Each student has a job coach on-site to help him or her develop skills. Students are encouraged to get to work on their own.

The program allows students to be treated like everyone else, said Michele Wells, vocational rehabilitation counselor for Project Search.

“It allows students to see what they can do for a company and the company to see what the students can do for them,” she said.

Carilion Clinic is the program’s sole corporate sponsor, and coordinators said they are seeking more businesses to become involved.

Project Search allows a company that may not have considered hiring someone with a disability to do so at little to no cost.

Hiring employees with a disability is a strength for a company, Goldstein said.

“It’s all about acceptance,” Goldstein said. “We need to focus on each student’s unique strengths instead of their disabilities.”

Source:  http://www.roanoke.com/news/roanoke/wb/268389



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