SHS grads with disabilities to intern at OCH

STARKVILLE — This upcoming school year, recently graduated Starkville High School alumni with disabilities will be working as interns throughout OCH Regional Medical Center, learning job skills to carry with them into future careers.

At the OCH Board of Trustees meeting on June 27, the board approved a partnership with the Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District to participate in Project SEARCH through the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services.

Project SEARCH is a nationwide nine-month employment preparation program that places young adults with disabilities between the ages of 18 and 21 as interns in hospitals across the country, MDRS Division Director Faye Culpepper said.

“They do a nine-month, non-paid internship program,” Culpepper said. “The reason it’s not paid is because they’re learning as many marketable skills as possible to be able to go to work but also to be able to find out what career they want. It’s individuals with all disabilities, and there is no disability we do not provide services to.”

Culpepper said the program started at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 1996, when the director of nursing noticed the staff was serving patients with disabilities but not employing staff with disabilities.

The program has since expanded across the country, launching in Mississippi in 2018. Since then, 141 interns have graduated from the program across the state. Culpepper said the program expanded to Columbus Air Force Base last year, which has increased the number of interns served.

OCH CEO James Jackson said Project SEARCH incorporating the hospital as a training site has been in the works since before the pandemic, and he is excited to finally see the interns come to OCH in September.

Though Project SEARCH does not guarantee long-term jobs for the interns at the training site, Jackson also acknowledged it may be a good way for the hospital to find new employees.

“They’re not limited in where they might go, but it’s about finding a good match,” Jackson said. “… They will serve as an intern and get exposure to the hospital, and that will give us exposure to them as well, and hopefully it turns into an employment opportunity for them. And if it’s not with us, it will help them find employment, which is the entire goal of the whole program.”

Jackson said the program will include six interns for the first year, and work will be assigned based on the students’ skill sets and interests.

But he said the possibilities for work experiences in the hospital are not limited.

When it comes to selecting the interns involved in the program, SOCSD Director of Student Support Services Julie Jones said SHS special education department personnel will recommend former students.

“They will have to open a case with the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitative Services (MDRS) and go through interviews and applicable assessments with them to determine interests and abilities,” Jones said. “From there, if they meet the criteria set forth by Project SEARCH, they will be enrolled into the program through the School District. If not, they will be referred to an appropriate service in MDRS that can serve them.”

Superintendent Tony McGee said the program is a win for the district, as Project SEARCH will expand opportunities for industry partnership for the district’s schools.

“This partnership with OCH and Vocational Rehabilitation will help prepare our students with disabilities with real world opportunities to better prepare them for successful integrated employment outside the school environment,” McGee said.

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