The students will spend the next nine months participating in Project Search internships through a collaboration with the school district, hospital and the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services.

“Clearly, this is going to be a great partnership,” said NMMC president David Wilson during a Monday orientation session for the students and their parents.

The program, which includes three 10-week internships, is designed to help the students who have developmental or cognitive disabilities develop life and job skills that will allow them transition from school to employment and function as independently as possible.

“This is a proud day in the Tupelo Public School District,” said Superintendent Rob Picou.

For adults with cognitive and developmental disabilities, the national employment rate is about 20 percent. For students who have gone through Project Search programs, the employment rate is 80 percent.

“It’s going to change lives for these young adults,” said Chris Howard, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services.

Alene Jones, whose 18-year-old son J’Riel Long is participating in the program, said she’s excited to see Mississippi offering more opportunities for those with special needs.

“As a parent, you’re always going to worry, but I’ll worry a little less because he can go through the program, get a full-time job and be independent.”

International program

Project SEARCH began more than 20 years ago at the Children’s Hospital of Cincinnati and has grown into an international program. Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services piloted the project last year with Rankin County Schools, where it received positive feedback from students, hospital employees, parents and educators, Howard said. This year, Project Search has expanded to five sites in the state.

At NMMC, Project Search educator Susan Dudley will work with the students every day to help them master job skills and understand expectations. The first three weeks will be an extended orientation, helping the students find their way around the hospital, learning basic skills and matching their strengths and interests with the internship options. Once the students begin their internships, they will still meet with Dudley for an hour every day.

“It’s something new we’ve never offered before,” said Dudley, who has served as the transition coordinator for Tupelo special education students.

The hospital has identified 13 job roles for the Project Search program in food service, child care, wellness center, central sterile supply, biomedical, supply distribution, ambassador, environmental services and outpatient rehabilitation departments.

“Every department manager I’ve talked to has been really excited about doing it,” said Cora Polson, NMMC student experience navigator.

In the supply chain department, the student interns will take on jobs like cleaning IV pumps and poles and pulling supplies ordered by medical units and preparing them for pick up, said Kenneth Fields, supply chain director.

“It’s an opportunity to help them learn life skills and feel confident about themselves,” Fields said. “We’re always looking for new employees.”

The program really brings together the resources of rehabilitation services, the school district and the hospital, said supported employment counselor Melanie Hickman. The community benefits from an expanded, enthusiastic workforce. The students gain careers and independence.

“We work together so we can help them,” Hickman said. “It would work in other businesses as well.”