Project SEARCH interns graduate at Merit Health Natchez, find careers

NATCHEZ — Three interns at Merit Health Natchez graduated Wednesday from Project SEARCH — a program for young adults with special needs — which is a first for any in Natchez.  First launched in August 2018, Project SEARCH Mississippi is a nine-month program that is administered by the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services.  The three students — Patrick Davis, Nathan Gaude and Chloe Hodgson — were the first to participate and graduate from the program in Natchez through a collaboration of Natchez Adams School District, Merit Health Natchez and MDRS.

The goal for each program participant is competitive employment, which the program prepares the students for by providing real-life work experience and independent living skills training.  All three Natchez graduates found jobs after finishing the program.  Davis, who was a young man of few words when he started the program, begins his job at Sports Center — Rex Team Sports next week. He evolved from looking down at his feet while others spoke to him to sitting upright in his chair with a smile on his face at Wednesday’s graduation, said Ronnie Calhoun, who is a Project SEARCH instructor alongside Charm Powell.

Hodgson, who at one point in her life was told she wouldn’t be able to walk and went through physical therapy to overcome the challenge, will soon start a job at Key Rehab Associates. Gaude, who loves smiles and hugs, found a position working for the Town of Vidalia.  “He interviewed with the mayor and five minutes later, he was sitting in the mayor’s chair,” Calhoun said. “I told Mayor Craft that he’d better watch out, or pretty soon he (Gaude) will be running the town.”  As of 2022, 141 individuals with disabilities graduated from Project SEARCH Mississippi. Of those, 97 found employment. A total of 73 interns participating in Project SEARCH throughout the state will graduate this month.

Deputy Administrator of MDRS Kevin Bishop said, “It’s a privilege to be able to be part of this. I hear stories of students who come through who look down at their feet and by the time they get through the whole process, they’re standing at the mic at graduation saying good afternoon or good morning. It changes lives, this program.”  Parents of the graduates couldn’t contain their emotions while sharing how their children changed through Project SEARCH. Hospital staff shared how much they would miss having them around the hospital and how they hope the program would continue to bring future interns to Merit Health.  “It’s an amazing experience that I’m truly blessed to be a part of,” Calhoun said. “At the beginning of the year, I don’t think any of us knew what to expect. It took a lot of people buying in, trusting in the process and believing in each other. It wasn’t always perfect. It wasn’t always smooth. But we have the luxury of getting to learn things as we grow. If you could see the growth of all three of these (graduates) throughout the year, it’s been amazing.”

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