UAMS, Project SEARCH 2024 Graduating Class Succeeds with Mutual Support, Energy

By Ben Boulden

During that time, LeAnn Robertson, UAMS Project SEARCH instructor/coordinator, said the interns were “passionate, enthusiastic, supportive and motivated.”

Project SEARCH Arkansas ACCESS Initiative, in partnership with Arkansas Rehabilitative Services (ARS), is for young adults with developmental disabilities. Interns participate in the program and work in various UAMS departments with the goal of gaining necessary skills to obtain competitive employment. Four of this year’s nine graduates already have secured employment in a variety of occupations.

UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson, M.D., MBA, said that on his way to the graduation ceremony he rode up in the elevator with an alumnus of the program who is an employee of the university. He noted that two of the graduates of the inaugural class in 2013 still work at UAMS.

Patterson delivers opening remarks at the graduation ceremony of the Project SEARCH Class of 2024.

Patterson delivers opening remarks at the graduation ceremony of the Project SEARCH Class of 2024.Image by Even Lewis

Judy Smith, statewide coordinator for Project SEARCH Arkansas, said, “Our deputy commissioner recently told me that Project SEARCH is the most successful program of all the programs that we have, and the jobs that they’re getting are quality jobs.”

The highest earning graduate is making $18.08 an hour with a 401K as well as other benefits like paid time off. Most graduates earn an hourly wage above the $11 state minimum wage, she said.

The ceremony’s keynote speaker was Amanda Orgel, youth services coordinator for Central Arkansas Library System and mother of graduate, Theodore Ferguson.

She recounted her own challenges giving birth to him, his diagnosis and struggles in schools as well as his achievements. She said when she and her husband divorced a few years ago, “Teddy” had a difficult time coping with the split and with the death of his father after that.

“So, after some recovery time, I started reaching out to people I knew in the special needs community and was encouraged to look into Project SEARCH for Teddy,” Orgel said. “From day one when we showed up to the orientation evening, I knew that this was going to be a great program for him. I knew that it was a place where he was going to be set up for success.”

Succeed he did. Orgel said Ferguson had started his third internship rotation at UAMS when his supervisor in the first one in the Mail Room called him to offer him a permanent, full-time job there.

“I really haven’t seen him this happy in in years, and so I’m real proud of him. And just a little thing, I’m going to put out there, because it made me very proud. Teddy, for the first time, on May 1, paid his very own rent out of money that he made and earned in his job,” she said.

Amanda Orgel, left, and her son, Teddy Ferguson. Orgel was the keynote speaker and Ferguson was a graduate of Project SEARCH. Image by Evan Lewis

Amanda Orgel, left, and her son, Teddy Ferguson. Orgel was the keynote speaker and Ferguson was a graduate of Project SEARCH. Image by Evan Lewis

UAMS was the first Project SEARCH site in Arkansas, and now there are seven. Of its 346 graduates, 321 have found jobs. Orgel said the ultimate goal of the program is for the students in it to find meaningful employment.

“And I believe that’s what Teddy has found in this job that he’s in now is productive and meaningful employment,” she added. “And so, thank you Project SEARCH. Thank you, UAMS. I couldn’t be prouder.”

The 2024 graduates as they received their certificates were:

  • Theodore Ferguson
  • Taylor Frerking
  • Makayla Hill
  • Diamond Kelley
  • Jesse McDonald
  • Lauren Motes
  • Caleb Muhammad
  • Michael Orlen
  • Luke Siria

After they in turn accepted their certificates, each graduate described in what departments and offices they had worked at UAMS, what their responsibilities were, and also thanked their mentors.


The internships widely vary, ranging from rotations in patient transport and nutrition services to human resources and classroom technology. They also learn the importance of general job skills like punctuality, courtesy and communication along with practice and instruction in interviewing for a position.


“There were hardships, and many times I felt like I wanted to give up, though through my perseverance and will, I pushed through,” Orlen said. “I was able to stand on the stage with everyone else in my life. I felt that I never belonged, like I was an outcast, until I was offered Project SEARCH. At first, I felt isolated and alone, though as time went on, I felt more included in stuff and generally put in more effort to change.”

Robertson praised the entire class of 2024 for the mutual aid and support they offered to each other for their individual and for their collective successes.

“They supported each other in expressing their feelings. They are a close-knit group. They pushed each other up to be better. The confidence they have today is so much stronger than they came in with. Their bonds will continue, and they will continue to support each other,” Robertson said.