Project SEARCH students graduate with jobs

Twenty years ago, Bradford Hulcher wouldn’t have believed that her son, Sam, would have a job after high school.

But earlier this month, after graduating from the yearlong Project SEARCH internship program, Sam Hulcher and six other young adults with autism from Henrico County were offered jobs at Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital.

“I’m just so excited,” Bradford Hulcher said.

Project SEARCH is a national program that provides internships for high school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to help them develop skills and work experience. Of 200 programs nationwide, St. Mary’s is the only one that works exclusively with only autistic students and involves a research component, said Paul Wehman of the Virginia Commonwealth University Rehabilitation Research and Training Center.

“This was a novel idea,” Wehman said. The grant to fund the St. Mary’s program is designed to study the effectiveness of this program compared to in-school programs offered by public schools. Every year, the program’s interns have been hired after its conclusion, he said.

“The other two years we’d done this, I’ve thought, ‘Yes this is why I’ve been in this field so long,’” Wehman said of the program’s success. “No matter how many books I write or papers, this basically affirms what we’re about.”

During the graduation, Wheman told students that the day was theirs.

“You’re heroes, pioneers and champions,” he said. “You did it. It doesn’t just happen. You did it because you joined hands.”

Participating students gave up their final year of high school, which by law they can attend until they are 21 years old, to apply for the program. Those accepted were chosen randomly from the pool of applicants, said Steven Harris, whose son, Sean, applied twice.

“We had talked to his teachers through- out the years about life after high school, and like they said, this was an opportunity of a lifetime,” he said. “We’re very thankful to his teachers for encouraging us to do this. They said it would be a good fit for him. I’ve been a blubbering idiot the whole time. I feel so strongly today.”

Sean Harris was one of four students selected from Deep Run High School.

“We were just really lucky this year to have so many of our students be chosen,” said Linda Maillet, Sean Harris’ exceptional education teacher from Deep Run, who attended the ceremony.

Former Deep Run student Brittany Lott said she had learned how to be independent through the program. Her father, Milton Randall, said that he felt exhilarated after the ceremony.

“You know she’s really come a long way,” he said. “When she left Deep Run there was a lot of apprehension there. . . She’s just matured over the course of the year here.”

Nurse Manager Cynthia Rogers said she had begged for an intern every year and that her staff misses the interns when they’re not there. “So I’m hiring,” she said enthusiastically.

Interns have worked with more than 60 departments in the hospital, including the cardiovascular and telemetry services department, in which Rogers works.

When asked what she would tell parents or others considering the St. Mary’s program, she said, “I think the big thing is to give them a chance, because we were really amazed at what they were able to do when given the chance, and now I’m not sure we can function without them.”

St. Mary’s CEO Toni Ardabell, who surprised parents and students alike by announcing that the students would start work in the fall if they chose, thanked the students for their contributions.

“You taught us more than you expected,” she said. “Thank you for teaching us patience and determination.”
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