By Andy Kanengiser
April 30, 2021
Trett Burgess is making progress living independently as he takes on challenges as a young adult. Diagnosed with autism early in his life, the 2020 Northwest Rankin graduate is in the process of going to work with a major Jackson employer.
A minimally verbal client with the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services, Trett Burgess, 21, is taking major steps to overcome his disability. He’s become a beloved and dependable co-worker. Away from the workplace, his interests range from music to drawing.
The young man lives with his Dad, Chris Burgess, and three half-sisters, Maddy, 17, Macie, 15, and Mylee, 12, near Brandon.
As April marks National Autism Awareness Month, it’s time to recognize people with autism and those caring for them. Activities increase understanding and acceptance of individuals with autism. Events began with the 14th annual World Autism Awareness Day on April 2.
It’s not just one month for Trett’s Dad, Chris. He’s experienced his son’s autism for much of his life. Trett was given a “developmentally delayed’’ diagnosis at age three, and evaluated again with autism two years later. What is autism? It is a developmental disorder of variable severity characterized by difficulty in social interaction and communication.
“Finding schools or childcare was very difficult because not many places are equipped with staff to care for a non-verbal autistic child. As a parent that worried me because it made me wonder what the future would be like for Trett,’’ Chris Burgess said. “You want your child to succeed no matter what their physical or mental disabilities may be.’’
Trett attended Clinton public schools for much of his life. While there, his teacher introduced him to various jobs. Special education students like Trett took field trips to drug stores, restaurants and a bookstore. They learned to stock shelves, organize books and handle money.
“Trett was a hard worker and enjoyed doing a good job. His teacher would tell me about how his day went and how everyone loved having Trett helping out at their business,’’ Chris Burgess said. “I began to see hope in Trett’s abilities to work independently and be successful as an adult.’’
In 2019, Trett moved to a new school, in Rankin County, as a special education student and easily made friends. A teacher told his father about the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services’ Project SEARCH program at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, a three-way partnership that also includes Rankin County Schools. The program serves young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Trett worked at UMMC’s animal lab. “I like the mice,’’ Trett said. “I like the people I work with. They are all nice to me.’’
All was going well for the young man until the COVID-19 pandemic started to heighten in March 2020.
Project SEARCH was put on hold for Trett, like many activities worldwide, due to the global health emergency. The hospital wouldn’t allow non-UMMC employees on campus. There were Zoom classes for Trett, but not hands on training. He worked as an intern through MDRS and handled tasks for five months at a Goodwill store in Pearl.
Thanks to help from MDRS counselor Rebecca Sentell and Jennifer Jackson, the agency’s autism coordinator, Trett returned to work at UMMC’s animal facility in January 2021 as an intern. In March, his supervisor phoned the family with good news: they want to work towards Trett becoming a UMMC employee instead of an intern. That transition is still in process.
“Trett is an extremely amiable and dependable member of our research support team,” said Dr. Chris Hanks, assistant director of UMMC’s Center for Comparative Research and an assistant professor in the Department of Surgery. “Along with his coach, Sam, Trett handles all of his duties and responsibilities in a timely and efficient manner, adding value to the team. We love having Trett on board. He brings a smile to our face every day.”
“I am so excited for Trett and could not have done this without the help of everyone involved in his development,’’ Chris Burgess said. From teachers at Clinton and Rankin County to the people at MDRS, Project SEARCH UMMC, and the staff at the UMMC animal lab, he thanks so many. “We are truly blessed to have these people and organizations advocating for young adults like Trett.’’
Jennifer Jackson commends the MDRS client for his success. “Trett is a hard worker and prides himself on completing his tasks accurately.’’
He likes music with a special playlist on iTunes, which he listens to during bus rides to UMMC. He began Project SEARCH as a shy young man. “By the end of the program, Trett was greeting people in the hallway as he walked to his job site every day. I am extremely proud of him and all his accomplishments,’’ Jackson said. The Mississippian, she said, “is a joy to be around and will brighten the day of anyone he meets.’’
His Dad, who works at an auto dealership in Jackson, is delighted to see what his son achieved. “We’ve spent his entire life putting more of a focus on his abilities rather than disabilities. He’s already far exceeded my expectations. I couldn’t be more proud.’’