• Article
  • May 23 2024

Project SEARCH celebrates 1st cohort’s graduation

UK HealthCare celebrated Karly, Ella, Elaine, Alvin, Richard and Daniel (left to right) as they became the first to graduate from Project SEARCH. Carter Skaggs | UKphoto

Graduation Day — the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new one full of hope for the next step in life.

Wednesday, six Project SEARCH interns became the first-ever graduates of the nine-month immersive internship at UK HealthCare. A transition-to-work program for high school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Project SEARCH offers young people immersive job experiences to help them develop new skills.

The graduates marked the milestone with a certificate presentation and speeches in front of their biggest supporters in Karpf Auditorium at the University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Hospital.

“Project SEARCH has given me more communication skills, taught me how to work on a team and more independence,” said Richard.

“I have gained the opportunity to work and get a job,” said Alvin. “This has been a great year.”

“I learned how to be independent, budget money, learned computer skills and how to be professional,” said Karly. “I also made friends!”

“This year has been a great experience,” said Daniel. “Project SEARCH has helped me to apply for jobs. I feel more confident and independent.”

“At Project SEARCH I learned how to way-find, how to use money better and wiser, and how to teach other interns,” said Ella, an intern turned skills trainer with the program.

“Project SEARCH taught me how to help others and communicate better,” said Elaine. “I also learned cleaning skills through the program.” 

Their speeches encapsulate the true goal of the program: to learn transferable skills that set up interns for success finding employment in a health care setting and instill in them a sense of pride and independence.

“We are incredibly thankful for this group of young people to help us launch Project SEARCH,” said Tukea Talbert, chief diversity and health equity officer at UK HealthCare. “Their boldness and willingness to be the first has shown us the power of possibilities and the importance of creating opportunity for all people to demonstrate their talents.”

UK HealthCare is the first academic medical center in Kentucky to serve as a hub site for Project SEARCH.

It took a dedicated group from UK HealthCare alongside UK’s Human Development Institute (HDI)Fayette County Public Schools (FCPS) and the Kentucky Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) to launch the program in August of 2023.

“Our interns have met every challenge with fearlessness, positivity and enthusiasm. Each of them is leaving this experience ready to reach the next goal they’ve set for themselves,” said Holly McCombs, the Project SEARCH program instructor and an FCPS teacher.

“As the first graduates of our program, this group of interns will always hold a special place in our hearts as an inspiration for future students and continued improvement within our program,” said Rachel Baker, program director for Integrated and Supported Employment for FCPS.

Over the past few months, visitors going in and out of Chandler Hospital have likely seen some of the interns on the job refilling boxes of masks and tissues or helping in the cafeteria.

The eager interns also worked in a variety of roles behind the scenes to help keep hospital operations running smoothly in areas including hospital administration, environmental services, patient experience, central sterile services, purchasing and materials, and integrative medicine.

Interns have also worked together over the last nine months in the classroom to learn how to interact with new coworkers and to stay safe on the job. They practice their new skills with fellow interns and lean on each other for support.

Those involved in the program shared how they’ve witnessed the growth and development of the interns since the start of Project SEARCH.

“From mastering new skills to building confidence in a professional setting, the journey of each Project SEARCH intern has been nothing short of transformative,” said Jenna Lowe, hospital administration manager at UK HealthCare. “Watching them graduate with a sense of achievement and readiness for the job search is a testament to their hard work and the commitment of the Project SEARCH team and mentors, as well as the UK HealthCare community. I cannot wait to see all they accomplish in the future!”

“Their transformation from the beginning to now has been nothing short of phenomenal, and it serves as a testament to the power of creating unique opportunities for students,” said Baker. “I have no doubt our interns will go on to do amazing things and make a positive impact in our community.”

Some of the interns already have jobs lined up after graduating from the program. Others will continue their education. It’s news the Project SEARCH team couldn’t be prouder of, and they are equally proud of all the interns’ accomplishments.

“I know our students will go out and continue to make the world a better and more beautiful place being their true and authentic selves,” said McCombs.

To Alvin, Daniel, Elaine, Ella, Karly and Richard — congratulations on being the first to complete Project SEARCH at UK HealthCare.