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Project SEARCH

Project SEARCH

by Dr. William R. Sutton

Sitting around the kitchen table with my grandpap, grandma, and my dad, I heard Dad ask a rather strange question considering I was in my late teens at the time. He asked my grandparents, “When do you stop worrying about your children?” My Grandma with a moment’s hesitation responded in an unwavering voice looking directly into my Dad’s eyes, “Rich, you never stop worrying about your children. You are in your forties, and we still worry about you.” My Grandpap on cue chimed in with, “As one of our children, you are our concern since the day you were born.” A moment of silence fell across the kitchen. A profound fact of life became very obvious in those moments. Everyone just kind of stared at each other. My Grandpap worked as a coal miner making a meager salary. Grandma for the most part remained at home to care for the children, superintend the garden, and manage the household. The answer resonates with me today as my own children are in their late thirties with families of their own. Grandma’s response is just as true today as it was that day in her kitchen. Parent devotion, care, and concern for their children never dissipates, diminishes, or decreases.

When your children grow older and become adults, you think your apprehensiveness of their welfare would dissolve as their independence increases. Yet the opposite is true.

The concern for children with special needs may actually augment as the parent grows older. The day will come when parents will not be able to help their children make decisions, provide daily necessities for life, or deliver advice. What happens then? How will my child make his or her way in the world? What will he/she do to make a living? What about benefits we all take for granted like health care and retirement? These issues are real and cannot be eliminated. Parents and educators work together to teach children how to be their own best advocates, but there is a need to fill the void when the trusted teacher is no longer there, or the parent who has loved their child forever is unable to answer their call.

New Summit School enjoys a special relationship with the parents of our students and community supporters. The philosophy of the school’s founder, Dr. Nancy New states in the student handbook, “As a school, we strive to encourage our students to realize their full academic and creative abilities, develop strong values, and imbue a sense of how they will contribute to the community in their own individual way.” Each child receives encouragement and assistance to become an integral of the local community. This endeavor requires the collaboration of school personnel, parents, public agencies, and patrons of the local region. This symbiotic relationship came to gather in a confluence of troubled waters searching for a resolution to provide comfort, confidence, and compassion for our parents and students. The Mississippi Department of Rehabilitative Services (MDRS), Mississippi Baptist Medical Center, and New Summit School merged together in a providential move to enter into a Project SEARCH venture designed to provide internships to career students and general diploma students seeking vocational employment.

MDRS seeking to assist students with disabilities met with school officials to develop a Project SEARCH site for students completing or near completion of their high school career.

Diligent monthly meetings helped design a school curriculum to prepare students with the necessary social and academic skills required for a successful transition into a Project SEARCH operation. The final breakthrough came when an opportune conversation brought Mississippi Baptist Hospital into the fray. The process moved quickly to develop the requisites needed to begin the internship program. The fruits of this program are already evident as one component to the answer of the question, “When do you stop worrying about your children,” can now be observed and lived out in the families of New Summit School’s students and parents.

The students when asked, “What do you find to be the most enjoyable experience of Project SEARCH?” provide a plethora of responses both from an academic perspective and social maturation. They enjoy “meeting new people and helping patients.” This social skill was taught as part of the career curriculum at New Summit School when students worked at various job sites on the campus in the cafeteria, elementary school setting, and through the service hour requirement to graduate. Working with people and being “treated as adults” in the internship environment proclaims how the transition from high school to employment is applicable to all students and a necessary requirement in the educational process of preparing students for the work environment. Everything is not easy for the Baptist Hospital interns. They felt “nervous” and had to overcome hesitation to “communicate with new co-workers.” However, the students from New Summit as always adapted well. Just like most young adults and older adults as well, they find it challenging “not to have their phones.”

With the careful guidance of their on-site academic instructor and job coaches the students transition process continues with minimal bumps in the road.

One of the key elements of the change is the fact their high school career teacher went through a transition herself to join to her students at Baptist Hospital along with one of the job coaches who formerly worked in the cafeteria at New Summit. These two individuals with their knowledge of the students provide a comfort zone and an established relationship to help make the transition even smoother.

The staff at Baptist Hospital and the attitude of the Department Leaders involved in the internship program embraced Project SEARCH with open minds and just as importantly with open hearts. The New Summit students were recognized in a high school ceremony to close out their senior year. Representatives from Baptist Hospital, the State of Mississippi, and school personnel collaboratively pinned the new interns to the cheers of the parents, students, and others in the audience. Tears flowed as hearts full of joy and thanksgiving made the presentation even more special. How do you help parents answer the question, “What will my child do when I am no longer here?” The seeds have been planted in Project SEARCH. You sense the pride, relief, and confidence for the program in parent comments since their children have participated as interns even during this brief period of time. One parent said, “He has become part of a working team; he has long term goals. We are amazed at this opportunity for NSS students and grads.” The staffs of Baptist and MDRS were recognized for their contribution and support of Project SEARCH and their willingness to help students regardless of perceived limitations. This thought is evidenced in another parent’s statement, “Project SEARCH has opened doors that we once thought were closed. This program is a game changer for our lives.”

Project SEARCH has not removed all the apprehensiveness of parents nor has it ceased all trepidation and concerns parents have for a child. However, parents do feel a sense of relief as they watch their children make mature and independent decisions with as one parent stated, “with confidence in himself.” The joint venture between a local enterprise, the state government, and a local school provides a level of support and confidence in the future that otherwise may not have been available. One dad said, “Honestly, we did not know what was next for our child after graduation until New Summit School joined up with Project SEARCH.” Baptist Hospital, New Summit School, and the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services brought in the breath of hope for many parents concerned for their children’s future. An opportunity to let their child grow his or her wings prepared to take flight into the unknown future with a security and confidence. Project SEARCH “has given us hope that this will provide a career and a purpose for his future.” We can overcome challenges working together for the future of our nation that includes all students from all walks of life. We may never completely eliminate the worry, but we can take steps to make it easier to let go with confidence our children will be all right when we are gone.

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