Project SEARCH Interns Redirect Efforts During Pandemic

By Amy Widner

“We’re proud of them, for what all they’ve done, because we know it’s hard,” said Heather Keister, whose last internship rotation right before the pandemic was working in the NICU.

The interns have a special appreciation for all the work that goes into making a hospital run because until mid-March, they were working on the main Little Rock campus right there beside the hospital staff. Project SEARCH is a nine-month internship program for young adults with developmental disabilities who are looking to learn job skills that will hopefully lead to permanent positions.

Zoom screen shot of interns

The Project SEARCH interns now meet almost daily via Zoom to continue their training.

“My rotation in the NICU was so much fun,” Keister said. “In the morning, I would clean and do the laundry, and then in the afternoon we would man the front desk to make sure people who were going in and out of the floor were supposed to be there.”

The key characteristics of the program are hands-on learning and real-life experiences to foster independent living skills and employability. That has been a difficult mission to meet since the campus closed to students, visitors and many patients in mid-March, and Project SEARCH suddenly had to shift online, but they have been making the best of it.


Intern with Thank You sign

Heather Keister shows one of the thank you messages she made for the staff at UAMS.

Le Ann Robertson, the instructor and coordinator for ACCESS Initiative Project SEARCH at UAMS, has been meeting virtually each week day with the interns via Zoom. They have worked on budgeting, vocational planning and learning about nutritional, mental and physical health. They have also learned about how to protect themselves and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many of the lessons have been framed in terms of “challenges” – like finding out the nutritional value of their favorite meal or food.

“I love the engagement and that many of the activities involve getting up, going outside, taking pictures – doing things,” Myia Walker said. “And we’ve done other things like projects that involved us thinking about what we’re thankful for, which helped me focus on the positive side.”

Student with Thank you sign

Alec Layland shows his thank you sign for UAMS’ health care heroes.

They’ve learned Zoom, they’ve given PowerPoint presentations, filmed video of themselves, and have mastered the other virtual skills that are part of this “new normal” for many workers. They presented a video of themselves doing something for someone else, participated in exercise challenges, and planned a virtual trip to somewhere in Arkansas, complete with a budget.

They also face all the same challenges as everyone else during the pandemic. For example, Stephan Rauhofer had reached a goal of having a delivery job, but had to give it up during the pandemic to put safety first.

“I didn’t want to have the risk of infecting my family, especially my parents, who are older,” Rauhofer said.

Interns filling bags for veterans

For one of the service projects the interns did while still on campus in November, they filled and distributed care bags for veterans around Veterans Day.Bryan Clifton

Project SEARCH appeals to the kind of person who would like to have a job and a sense of independence, but might not have learned the skills to do so or have had the right opportunities.

“Before I found Project SEARCH, I felt like I hadn’t been able to do much since high school,” Walker said. “With the internship, I got used to getting up early, coming to UAMS and working. I was in a positive atmosphere and I had a positive attitude and felt like I was working toward my goals. Having to stay home because of the pandemic was hard at first. It’s definitely not the same. But the activities and meeting every day are keeping our minds occupied, teaching us important skills and keeping us on track as much as possible. I’m so glad we have the technology to make all this possible.”

Robertson said the program directors are hopeful they will still be able to help the interns with their job searches this summer.

intern with golden rolling pin

Intern Dutch Ledger displays the golden rolling pin he won at the bakeoff the interns held in December. He is joined by instructor and coordinator Le Ann Robertson (center) and skills trainers Jaimel Jointer (left) and Zach Robinson (right).Sam Giannavola

“We would love to have all of our interns working in the community, as soon as we are able,” Robertson said. “The interns are very involved and motivated. It is so good to ‘see’ them each day. They enjoy being with each other as well. These are trying times, but we are all in this together. But the biggest thing that we haven’t been able to replace is – we all miss everyone at UAMS.”

One of the projects that has generated a lot of excitement has to do with nutrition. Each intern has researched and presented a recipe to the group, complete with a cooking demonstration. The project was so popular they have decided to document the recipes in a cookbook that will be presented at the Project SEARCH graduation, tentatively scheduled for later in the summer.

The annual Project SEARCH graduation is always a well-loved and emotional event. It’s a time when the interns say thank you to their mentors and the campus community comes together to celebrate the interns’ successes. Usually held in May, instead this year, the thank yous and hugs and (sometimes) tears will have to wait, but for now the interns are writing thank you notes to their friends and colleagues and other staff at UAMS – and thinking of them each time they see a celebration for health care workers.

“We miss them, and still want to thank them for the opportunity to work with them,” said Madai Lopez Robles.

The 2019/2020 Project SEARCH interns are: Jeremy Acord, Tyler Barrett, Nathan Burroughs, Hunter Hatchett, Jay Jackson, Heather Keister, Alec Layland, Dutch Leger, Vanessa Provence, Madai Lopez Robles, Stephan Rauhofer and Myia Walker. The skills trainers are Jaimel Jointer and Zach Robinson.