SEARCH for jobs, acceptance pays off with work after finishing growing program

Her son landing a paying job was the perfect Mother’s Day gift for Kim Ratliff, even if it came two days later on the calendar.

“I was older than 30 when I had him and thought how would I provide for him when I’m gone,” said Ratliff, of Brandon, whose son, Will, was among six interns at UMMC who graduated from the Project SEARCH program during a ceremony May 16. “He now has social skills and is blossoming into an amazing young man,” she added, holding back a river of joyful tears.


For the six graduates, the occasion marked the end of their final year in high school and last notch in their belt to complete the program, a national initiative involving a nine-month rotation of classroom instruction and on-the-job training. The goal is to give teens and young adults with developmental disabilities a chance to achieve self-sufficiency by learning job and life skills.

UMMC is among 18 sites in Mississippi that hosts the program, which began at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 1996 and has grown to 748 sites in the U.S. and internationally. The school-to-work transition program for students with disabilities provides real-life work experiences with the outcome of competitive, integrated employment.

Locally, the Medical Center has partnered in the past with Rankin County School District and the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services to give students in the district hands-on training. This year, Pearl Public School District was added to the mix and supplied three of the six of the students receiving certificates.


“We are now in our fifth year here at UMMC,” said Christina Guarino, the Rankin County School District teacher assigned to Project SEARCH. “The addition of Pearl High School has expanded the opportunity for their students to receive real-life work experience combined with employability and independent living skills training. This prepares them for a successful transition from school to work. It also increases our pool of great candidates for UMMC. Our program aligns with their district's belief that education is an investment in the future of the community.” 

Ratliff, 20, recorded perfect attendance in the program and is taking his job skills to the manufacturing world, where he has landed a part-time job with F.U.N. Knives, a wholesale and consignment cutlery business. “I go to work starting tomorrow,” he said.

Fellow program graduate William Bailey, 20, of Pearl, will have a paid internship with Morrison Food Service and, in the process, be able to continue coming to UMMC each work day. That kind of stability is what he and his mother, Kimberly Thomas, wanted to see.


Kimberly Thomas, from left, mother of graduate William Bailey, Kimberly Bailey, William's aunt, and Corean Wheeler, William's grandmother, watch him accept his certificate during the ceremony.

“This means the world to both me and to him,” Thomas said. “Autistic kids just want to be included. They want to feel just like anybody else. So to take him, nurture him and prepare him for the real world gives him such a sense of pride. This has truly made him happy.”

Successful applicants in Project SEARCH move forward in the program by learning the soft skills of employability, independent living skills, teamwork, financial literacy, health and wellness, technology, self-advocacy and how to prepare and maintain employment. All graduates in this year’s class entered the program with an Alternate Diploma from high school, which became an option in 2022 in Mississippi public schools for those with a significant cognitive disability.

“We need this in Mississippi because for so long we did not expect nor coach students with disabilities to think employment first,” Guarino said. “As part of a systems-change mindset, we presume competence and train our students with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities to be self-determined.”


George Pressley, UMMC support services administrator and liaison for Project SEARCH, told graduates of the program to always remember what they were taught in the program as they began their new lives in the workforce.

“I had the privilege of having lunch with them yesterday,” Pressley said. “Just to hear their stories was quite remarkable.”

Joining Bailey and Ratliff among the graduates of the program for the 2022-23 school year were Ariana Andrews, 20, of Flowood; Reilly Easley, 19, and Shanderria Hill, 20, both of Pearl and new full-timers with Morrison Healthcare food service on the UMMC campus, and Preston Doolie, 20, of Florence, who now works part-time with HHS hospital housekeeping.

“I’ll be getting my own apartment in June,” Doolie said, noting an added milestone for him after HHS created a position specifically for him once they saw how helpful he was.

Much like the moms in the room, Bobby Doolie didn’t initially think any of those milestone moments would come to pass for his son.

“I think the program changed his attitude and the way he looked at everything,” Bobby Doolie said. “It helped him learn exactly what it was going to take for him to do things on his own.”


All six graduates did rounds in UMMC departments that included Ambassador Services, Office of Patient Experience, CPR Training, Patient Equipment, Volunteer Services, Supply Chain, Shipping and Receiving and Crown Laundry, UMMC Police Department and Public Safety and Sterile Processing, all in addition to the entities that have hired them. Other host departments at UMMC were the Print Shop, Hospital Administration, Animal Lab, Respiratory Equipment, Physical Therapy, Physical Facilities, Radiology and the Adult Emergency Department.

Ratliff appeared on the speaking program and gave out cups of unsprouted wildflower seeds to each graduate – setting the theme of the day of letting freshly planted seeds grow up on their own.

“I’m an old ER nurse, from way before I was a mama,” she said. “I had noticed before age 2 we weren’t meeting some milestones I thought we should.”

Two decades of IEP’s, speech and behavioral therapy sessions, ear-bending sessions with pediatricians and occasional bouts of self-doubt later, mama brims with pride as Will builds a work resume’ thanks to the program.

“Thank you for giving our babies a voice and some job skills,” she told attendees.

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