“We got this!” was Justin Carpenter’s excited battle cry as he graduated from the Project SEARCH program. Carpenter was one of 10 students from the Petal, Hattiesburg and Lamar County school districts who completed the inaugural program hosted by Forrest General Hospital.
A graduation ceremony was held May 18 at the Kamper Park Pavilion where graduates were surrounded by family, friends and instructors. Graduates were assigned time slots to help with social distancing.
Other charter graduates included Mariah Smith, Phillip Crowell, Kaira Smalley, Jordan Malone, Jordan Bastine, Hunter Hogan, Hoy Schramm, Bennie James and Troy Harris.
The program, which was started by the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services, is designed to help students with intellectual disabilities move into the workforce after high school.
For the past year, Carpenter and fellow students have worked their way through three rotations in different sectors of Forrest General, as well as learning business etiquette, proper interview skills and presenting themselves. During this time they have performed the duties of a real job, whether patient transport, copying and shredding, washing dishes, preparing or cleaning for patients, while at the same time making friends and making patients happy.
The students were two weeks into their third rotation when the COVID-19 pandemic shut the program down. Since then, the students have been keeping in touch with each other and their instructor, Heather Howell, via computer. But it was obvious at the May 18 ceremony that they had all missed each other.
Carpenter enjoyed his time learning to push patients in wheelchairs and similar tasks.
“I’m excited,” he said about the day and about the possibility of finding a job in the days ahead.
Jordan Malone was just as excited.
“It gave me good experience,” she said. “Now, I’m going to get a job.”
Malone will be working with the Food & Nutrition Department at Forrest General.
Superintendent for the Petal School District Matt Dillon believes the Project Search program is a great opportunity for students to partner with the community.
“These students have so much to give to our community, to the workforce as a whole,” he said.
Mariyah Smith said her graduation day meant a lot.
She’s not sure what she is going to be doing, but she’s looking for a job. Her mother, Virginia, feels like Project Search is an awesome opportunity for the students to enlighten their horizon.
“I’m so grateful for this program because without it, you could say, there is no hope. With this program, we have a lot of hope,” she said.
Jordan Bastine graduated under the watchful eyes of his mother, Ruby; his aunt Virginia Thomas (Aunt Sug); and his uncle Jerry Bastine. Already employed, Bastine will also be working with the hospital’s Food & Nutrition Department. He said the program helped him through a lot.
His uncle Jerry agrees wholeheartedly.
“He has come out so much,” he said. “He was just a homebody and that was it. Since he went to work, he’s come out of his shell and is doing real good. He’s grown up a lot since he started this. He knows he’s making money, he’s on his own. We are so proud.”
Bastine’s Aunt Sug has been very impressed with the program.
“It’s done a lot for him,” she said.
Her husband, Thomas Wood, who passed away two years ago, worked at Forrest General for a number of years.
“He would be so proud of Jordan following in his footsteps (at the hospital),” she said.
Howell said Jordan’s family had done a fabulous job of getting him to and from his job from out in Petal where they live.
“That’s a big plus,” Howell said. “Jordan sees the importance they put on the program and that helps him, too.”
Brittany Coberly, director of respiratory therapy at Forrest General, said her department hosted both Troy and Mariyah.
Coberly said when the program started, she was hesitant to bring students in because the department is so clinical. But she brought Troy on and gave him secretarial responsibilities. He handled all of the department’s equipment and actually went out with therapists and helped with patients.
“The therapists would do all the care, but he would help them put stuff together, take out the trash and talk to patients,” Coberly said. “What we saw from the patient side was they enjoyed having him there, so much so that when they came around for the next treatment they’d ask, ‘Where is Troy?’ He would sing, he would dance, just anything to make their day better. He brought light not only to our staff but to the patients and their families. So, for us, it made a huge impact, and we got to see firsthand what they did for us. Troy was literally one of us. We went through it all with him – from girlfriends to birthday parties.”
With the help of these students, Coberly said she wanted to help grow the program.
“But I also wanted my staff to take ownership with Troy and empower them to do something,” she added.
Even though the pandemic continues to hamper the way things are done, there will be another year of Project SEARCH at Forrest General Hospital, according to Howell.
In the next couple of weeks, directors will start looking at resumes, skill sets and other dynamics of the program.
Whether they will be on the hospital campus or at an offsite location until they can safely get back into their classroom is still up in the air.
The important thing is putting these 2020 graduates to work.
“We all have an innate desire to feel productive and lead meaningful lives,” said Troy Daniels, Forrest Health vice president. “These individuals are certainly no different.
Through the skills they have learned here at FGH, we feel that the door has been opened for them to begin the next chapter in their lives and show the community what they have to offer.”