Eden Cruz, Jazmin Hernandez, and Danielle Steinberg were honored by the school system and Piedmont Fayette Hospital as the first graduates of their Project SEARCH collaboration.

Call it a smashing success. A leap of faith on a partnership between the school system and Piedmont Fayette Hospital paid off with the graduation ceremony of the first three graduates of the inaugural Project SEARCH class.

Project SEARCH, developed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 1996 and now expanded to more than 600 programs around the world, trains people with developmental disabilities in job and life skills. Locally, Project SEARCH is a partnership between the school system and Piedmont Fayette Hospital focused on teaching students the skills they need to succeed upon graduating out of the school system.

Danielle Steinberg, Eden Cruz, and Jazmin Hernandez are the pioneers, completing the comprehensive program that saw them complete three 10-week job rotations at the hospital. They worked a full schedule from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, spending the first 90 minutes of the day in the classroom and the next five and a half hours on job sites, with a 30-minute lunch in the middle.

Danielle, Eden, and Jazmin each got to work with different departments at the hospital. With the Dietary/Nutrition Department, they delivered meals to patients and worked in the cafeteria washing dishes, cleaning tables, and preparing silverware. At the Rehabilitation and Fitness Center, they cleaned and set up treatment rooms, stocked linens, and performed weekly inventory. In Patient Access, they assisted with patient check-in, escorted patients and visitors, and performed clerical duties. On medical/surgical floors, they stocked supplies, checked in on patients and visitors, and offered general assistance.

Debbie Britt, Executive Director of Patient Services at Piedmont Fayette, called the partnership a success beyond what the hospital could have imagined.

“We embarked on a journey that has been mutually rewarding. We thought we were going to create the best workplace learning environment we possibly could, and what we learned along the way was staff and leadership of Piedmont Fayette Hospital were extraordinarily blessed by this journey,” she said, expressly thanking Jazmin, Eden, and Danielle. “Thank you for making me a better leader. You have inspired me beyond words, and it’s hard for me not to have words. You’ve inspired not just me, but my teammates. You’ve made us look to where we can be better.”

Sue McGrath, Manager of Clinical Nutrition, agreed.

“It’s been a pleasure working with the Project SEARCH interns this year, seeing them all grow and seeing them develop some really good marketable skills they can take with them to their next steps,” McGrath said. “It’s also helped me identify areas where I can be a good mentor for the upcoming years.”

Katie Harris, Supervisor of Rehab Services, applauded the trio’s work.

“They walked the halls, they greeted folks, and they didn’t pass a call light,” Harris said. “They were just part of our family.”

School Superintendent Dr. Jody Barrow lauded the partnership with Piedmont Fayette.

“We learned a long time ago that you can do work by yourself or you can partner with others and really make great things happen,” he said. “When you have people come together for a common good, you create win-win situations, and Project SEARCH, I think, is truly a win-win situation, not just for our school district and our Exceptional Children’s division but for our young people and their parents, and I think our community at large.”

The impetus for launching Project SEARCH locally was simple. It’s about a brighter future for Fayette and the children who will lead it.

“It’s about one reason and one thing, it’s about our young people. That’s the bottom line for me, always and forever,” said Barrow. “It’s about helping them be successful, and if we do that, as we get a little bit older, things are going to be a lot better for us. It’s an investment in our future.”

The community is behind the graduates in helping create employability pipelines. The interns will be supported going forward, from the SEARCH instructors and also by the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency and Briggs & Associates, a job coaching firm.

“We will work together and support the students from here on out,” said Project SEARCH instructor Jenny Bellamy, who led the program along with Suzanne Hyer.

The Fayette Chamber of Commerce is also chipping in.

“The Chamber of Commerce has stepped up and will work with us to try to get more exposure in our community with the businesses, because I tell them Project SEARCH is not just about getting a job at Piedmont Fayette Hospital, it’s about transferrable job skills, and that’s what we’re working towards, no matter what they want to do,” said Bellamy.

The trio of graduates each expressed their gratitude and excitement.

“Thank you for taking the time to teach me the job skills I learned this year,” said Danielle Steinberg. “I feel more confident. I’m excited for my career to start.”
Eden Cruz called their graduation very exciting.

“Thank you to the volunteers and the mentors for helping us,” she said. “I’m very grateful to them.”

Jazmin Hernandez said the program brought her out of her shell.

“When I started Project SEARCH I was a shy, quiet person who always said, ‘I can’t do it,’” she said. “When the days and months went by, I started feeling like a new person.”

Rosie Gwin, Director of Exceptional Children’s Services for the school system, congratulated the graduates and encouraged them to keep pushing.

“It is an end but it’s all a beginning, so that’s super exciting to think about all the different things that you can do going forward,” she said.

Gwin relayed the story of Babe Ruth, the famed home run hitter who struck out more than twice as many times in his career as he hit dingers.

“There’s going to be a lot of things in life that are really hard to do, and you’re not going to always win. You’re not going to always hit a home run like you have with Project SEARCH,” she said. “You have hit a real home run this year, and so I would encourage you that, as you see things in life, you reach out there and give it a try. Sometimes it’s going to work out great and sometimes it’s not, but you learn things along the way, and you’re a better person for it, and I hope that you’re a better person for being a part of Project SEARCH because I know all of us are.”


Ed. Note: This story is featured in our upcoming 2019 Panacea Medical Guide