UAMS Project SEARCH Interns Graduate, Overcome Unexpected Challenges

By Ben Boulden

Team UAMS members Sept. 10 gave recorded video testimonials and logged in to a live streaming video to celebrate the graduating interns.

Project SEARCH is a job-training program that helps young adults with disabilities gain competitive, integrated employment.

“Unlike previous interns, these 12 adults had to overcome challenges they could not anticipate when they began back in August. 2019,” UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson, M.D., MBA, said via a live Zoom video connection. “Working at their internships during a global pandemic proves they deserve a celebration like no other. It’s my honor to celebrate these amazing men and women as the seventh class of UAMS Project SEARCH.”

Typically, the interns spend nine months at UAMS working in various department and learning valuable job skills, but after a little more than six months and because of the pandemic, the program in mid-March had to shift to an online format. They continued to learn new job skills and software technologies like Zoom and PowerPoint.

The graduating interns got a chance to display their Zoom skills during their graduation as each in turn took a few, streaming minutes to describe their internships and to thank their mentors, supervisors and families as well as express their appreciation for the program.

“Thanks to Project SEARCH, I am working at Pulaski County Medical Exchange,” said Heather Keister. “I give and take messages for doctors and their patients. I have been there for about a month. I really enjoy it, and I recently got promoted to full-time. Project SEARCH shaped me to be a better employee and a better person. I am forever grateful for this experience.”

Completing its sixth year, the project is a partnership with the Little Rock-based nonprofit ACCESS® and Arkansas Rehabilitation Services. UAMS Project SEARCH was the first of its kind in central Arkansas. It was modeled after a program that began in 1996 at the Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Joe Baxter, Arkansas Rehabilitation Services commissioner, and Tammy Simmons, executive director of ACCESS, congratulated the graduates.

“Each one of you has a unique gift to offer to the workplace and team you choose,” Simmons said. “Remember that hard work and perseverance got you where you are today. That same work ethic will continue to open new doors and create new opportunities for you. We look forward to watching each of you as you take the next step on your journey toward purpose and independence.”

During the program and in addition to the hundreds of hours in their jobs, each intern also spent hundreds of hours in employability skills training, Patterson said. Twenty-two departments participated in this year’s program from Central Supply, Classroom Technologies, and Communications & Marketing to Mail Processing, Nutrition Services, Hospitality and Radiology.

Since it began in 2013, UAMS Project SEARCH has graduated 83 young adults. Of these, many have had obtained employment at the time of graduation, and the majority found jobs within a few months of graduating. Employers include UAMS, Dillard’s Inc., Arkansas Children’s Hospital, CHI St. Vincent, Cintas, Maverick Transportation and the Jim Dailey Fitness Center, just to name a few.

“This year is a little different than most as it also brought safety and health concerns with COVID-19, but five of our interns already have secured jobs,” Patterson said.

The chancellor also renewed the university’s commitment to the program despite the public health challenges. Interns this fall will train with ACCESS until they can return to campus for on-the-job training, he said.

“I know that this is not how you thought your graduation would be,” Le Ann Robertson, UAMS Project SEARCH instructor/coordinator, said. “With all the social distancing and Zoom interaction, I hope this still feels very important to you because it is. It is the culmination of a year’s worth of hard work and nothing can take that away from you. The virtual graduation does not diminish your accomplishments. In fact, it underscores them by showing that every single day you were able to rise to the occasion in finishing the Project Search program in ways we never expected.”

This year’s UAMS Project SEARCH graduates are:

Jeremy Acord

Nathan Burroughs

Tyler Barrett

Hunter Hatchett

Jaden Jackson

Heather Keister

Alec Layland

Dutch Leger

Vanessa Provence

Stephan Rauhofer

Madai Lopez Robles

Myia Walker