Judith Gillings used to walk the halls with her eyes fixed on her feet, quivering with shyness when she visited a patient’s room at Palmetto Health Baptist Parkridge.
Now the 18-year-old’s face brightens with a broad smile when she talks about bringing food to patients’ rooms at the hospital – how she introduces herself, asks the patients their names and birth dates, adjusts their beds and pulls around tables for their meals.
“Mostly, when I was in high school, I (saw) a dead end,” said Gillings, a special education student interning at Parkridge near Irmo through a program called Project SEARCH. “I didn’t really know what to do ... because I didn’t know what I was really capable of doing and what I would love to do.”
Gillings has found something she loves, planning to apply for a full-time job as a food-service assistant at the hospital. “I would love to have a job I will enjoy doing,” she said.
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Project SEARCH is a work immersion effort for high schoolers with intellectual and developmental disabilities designed to help them develop work skills.
I didn’t know what I was really capable of doing and what I would love to do.
Judith Gillings, Project SEARCH intern
Lexington-Richland 5 officials introduced Project SEARCH in the Midlands last fall, becoming the second South Carolina school district to host the international school-to-work transition program.
The partnership among the school district, Parkridge, The Arc of the Midlands and S.C. Vocational Rehabilitation employs six special education students in school-credit internships in various assignments at the hospital.
“These kids have taught us as much as we have taught them,” Parkridge chief operating officer Sarah Kirby said. “They come with a smile on their face. They come with an incredible work ethic. They want opportunities to be successful, and, like all of us, they want to be cheered on and given words of encouragement.”
Already, one student has begun working full-time in the outpatient surgery department at Parkridge. Another starts work full-time next week as a sanitation technician.
The goal is for all six interns to be employed after they graduate. Nationally, 85 percent of Project SEARCH students find employment after graduation.
“These are students that, without those intensive internship experiences, those 180 days, we may not be able to get them job ready,” said Angie Slatton, director of special services for Lexington-Richland 5. “These are the skills they need for any job.”
They want opportunities to be successful, and like all of us, they want to be cheered on and given words of encouragement. Sarah Kirby,
Palmetto Health Baptist Parkridge COO
The Project SEARCH interns “value their jobs,” said Sandi Batten, a job coach for the program through The Arc of the Midlands, an organization that advocates for and serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “They’re very reliable and have a great work ethic. They want it.”
Daniel Austin, 20, helps run a tight ship keeping patient rooms stocked – but not overstocked – with supplies in the emergency department.
When he first started his internship, he was a little shy, Austin said, “but then I grew out of it.” Now, he said, he enjoys interacting with patients and with coworkers who “treat you like you’re one of theirs.”
“It brings you to real life and the real world,” Austin said. “I think this is the greatest thing that gave me the awareness of what I need to do and what I don’t (in the workplace). It gave me the opportunity to experience what I need to do to get an apartment or a house or anything like that.”
It shows the working world that people with disabilities are capable of doing anything that anybody else is doing.
Eric Tolbert, Project SEARCH job coach
Austin takes ownership in his work, nurse manager Angela Bruccoli said. And when he’s not there working, the staff feels his absence and realizes the value he brings to the floor.
Bruccoli said she plans to encourage Austin to apply for a full-time job opening up in the emergency department.
Job coach Eric Tolbert, a state vocational rehabilitation official, has seen the Project SEARCH interns learn and grow quickly. And their work, he said, is a testament to the value they bring to the community.
“It gives them an opportunity to do things they would have never gotten to do without this (internship),” Tolbert said. “It shows the working world that people with disabilities are capable of doing anything that anybody else is doing.”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.