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TC, Inova Launch Project Search

Program provides work skills for students with disabilities.

Department directors of Inova Alexandria Hospital and Project Search students.

Department directors of Inova Alexandria Hospital and Project Search students.

— The room was decorated with blue, white and gold balloons. Presents with transparent orange wrapping papers were glittering on the table. People were talking to each other and laughing, as they were enjoying cookies and fruit.

The kick-off event of the Project Search High School Transition Program brought students, parents and staff members together for a night of celebration, appreciation and expectation on Aug. 29.

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Yuhan Xu

Jane Quenneville, director of special education at Alexandria City Public Schools, speaks at the kick-off event of the Project Search program.

The program is a joint effort among Alexandria City Public Schools, Inova Alexandria Hospital, the City of Alexandria’s Department of Rehabilitative Services and Linden Resources, a non-profit organization, helping students with disabilities obtain employment skills.

The ultimate goal of this program is competitive employment for students with physical or intellectual disabilities, said Jane Quenneville, director of special education at Alexandria City Public Schools. “We want to make sure they’re trained and ready to work, and they can be successful as contributing citizens in our community.”

Of the 10 students from T.C. Williams High School who applied to the program, and eight received letters of acceptance after being interviewed by a panel. These eight students took travel training this summer, learning how to travel safely and independently from and to the worksite. Starting Sept. 4, they will participate in three 10-week internships at the Inova Alexandria hospital throughout the school year. They will spend approximately 30 minutes in the classroom at the hospital at the beginning and end of each day, talking about their experiences and what need to be addressed for the following day. They will perform as either technician aides or secretary aides, assisting with equipments preparation, clerical resources or patient care.

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Yuhan Xu

Staff, students and families participate in the event.

A full-time teacher and a job coach from T.C. Williams High School are assigned to work with the students on skills that are necessary to successfully perform their jobs. And Linden Resources sends another job coach as well.

“I’m very excited that the program is finally happening,” said Ameeta Shah, employment support specialist at the school and now the teacher of the program. “It’s been two years of waiting and working on it. Everybody did a lot of collaboration and ground work.”

Originated at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, the Project Search program provides employable skills training and workplace internships for 18-22 year-old individuals with disabilities to help them transition from high school to adult life. The program now has more than 200 locations across the United States and Canada, England, Scotland and Australia.

The idea of setting up a worksite in Alexandria was brought up almost two years ago by Laura Owens, one of the consultants who works with the school on transition services. Since then, the ACPS has been networking, trying to establish partnerships with various organizations. The planning committee members of the program went to the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. to visit the Project Search site there. Last February, Susie Rutkowski, co-director of the program at Cincinnati came to Alexandria and gave the planning committee a two-day training. “That’s when we started seeing success and felt we’re ready to go,” Quenneville said.

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Yuhan Xu

Christine Candio (left), chief executive officer of Inova Alexandria Hospital, talks with two students in the Project SEARCH program, Diana Canales (middle) and Christina Messenger (right).

Over the past several months, Inova Alexandria Hospital staff has been working on the program as well, matching the potentials of each student with job roles at the hospital, and setting up a classroom. When the program starts, patient transport, emergency services, materials management and nursing units all will participate.

“Part of being a community hospital is being a good neighbor, working and partnering with the other entities within the city,” said Christine Candio, chief executive officer of the hospital. “So when this opportunity was brought forward, I think it’s absolutely wonderful. I’m so thrilled that we have a program like that in Alexandria. And we’re really looking forward to a long-term relationship with this program and helping youth in our community.”

Besides the hospital, the state Department of Rehabilitative Services is also involved.

“We work with the students who applied to the program,” said Teri Bertsch, counselor manager of the Alexandria DRS office. “Our commitment is to make sure the students are eligible for the services and we can support them financially.”

As one of the eight students, 19-year-old Leonardo Hurtado Jordan joined the event with his mother. They’re excited and grateful.

“I’m a caring person and I always wanted to become a nurse when I was little,” he said. “I think this is a great opportunity. I want to be well-educated and prepared to go to the outside world.”