MGA Puts Students With Special Needs to Work through Project Search

Author: Sheron Smith
Posted: Friday, September 6, 2019 12:00 AM
Categories: Faculty/Staff | Pressroom | In the News

Macon, GA

Project SEARCH participants interning at MGA are, L-R back row, Parker Perry, Jennifer Bearce, Zac Simmons, Rashawn Hughes, and Nykea Smith; and, L-R front row, Walter Finney; Ferico Simmons, and Orlando Evans.

Parker Perry loves his job at the Recreation & Wellness Center on Middle Georgia State University’s Macon Campus.

He staffs the front desk, scans IDs of students who come to work out or play basketball, keeps sports equipment organized, and folds towels with military style precision, a skill he said Harley Miller, assistant director of Recreation & Wellness, taught him. Soon he hopes to put his digital capabilities to work creating flyers to promote special rec and wellness events.

“My favorite part of the job is the new experiences,” Perry said. “I get to do different things every day.”

Perry, 19, is one of eight interns getting work experience at Middle Georgia State (MGA) through a program the Bibb County School District recently introduced called Project SEARCH. The program is designed to give students with developmental disabilities who have completed their high school coursework some opportunities to gain employable skills so they can build resumes and eventually apply for paid jobs.

“We’re very excited about our partnership with MGA,” said Dana Boyd, an instructor with Project SEARCH who accompanies the interns to the University each day. “The faculty and staff have welcomed them with open arms and go above and beyond to help them transition into their job duties.”

Project SEARCH was founded in Cincinnati in 1996 by a children’s hospital emergency department director, according to the program’s website. Because the hospital served so many people with developmental disabilities, the director thought it made sense to commit to hiring from among them for some of the facility’s entry level jobs.

Since then, the transition-to-work program has spread to a number of cities across the nation and abroad. Project SEARCH’s goal is to help special-needs students qualify for competitive, integrated employment and develop as much independence as possible as they enter adulthood.

MGA’s involvement came after the school district reached out to Ryan Greene, the University’s director of Auxiliary Services. He got enthusiastic responses when he contacted various MGA departments to gauge their interest in hosting interns.

“These interns are becoming woven into the very fabric of the MGA community,” Greene said. “They are working with the Student Life office, central receiving, library, recreation and wellness, the campus store and - in conjunction with our dining partner Sodexo - food services. A typical workday might include delivering mail across campus, helping out at a student engagement event, assisting students with academic resources in our library, and serving students and guests at our dining venues or at the Recreation & Wellness Center. Every department provides a different experience and an opportunity for the interns to become part of the MGA family.”

Boyd and another school district employee, Kim Soles, accompany the MGA interns around campus during their workdays. In classroom sessions, they work with the interns to help them develop skills in such areas as team building, technology, workplace safety, self-advocacy, health and wellness, and financial literacy. Interns are responsible for getting themselves to work, with many using the Macon-Bibb County Paratransit System.

All the interns said they enjoy their MGA work, and some are getting ideas for careers they might like to pursue.

Take Zac Simmons, 18, who is working in food services at Camelot Court, the Macon Campus cafeteria. Simmons, who is supervised by Billy Garland of Sodexo, is interested in the culinary arts. Besides working the serving line, Simmons is getting lessons from cafeteria staff in making pizza and other dishes.

Felicia Haywood, assistant director in the library, is supervising intern Jennifer Bearce, 20. Among other tasks, Haywood assigned Bearce a book inventory project using the Excel spreadsheet program.

“She’s doing very well,” Haywood said. “She’s focused, learns quickly, pays attention to detail, and asks questions when she’s unsure about a task. I just love that we’re involved with this program.”

At the campus store, Ferico Simmons, 19, sorts MGA and Knights logo shirts by size, along with other tasks.

“He’s a fast worker,” said Yaci Neal, a sales clerk who supervises Simmons. “He likes everything to be perfect. He’s so excited to be here, so that keeps me excited, too.”

Other interns are Rashawn Hughes, 20, who is working in the Student Life office; Nykea Smith, 21, interning at Subway in the Student Life Center; Orlando Evans, 20, working at Camelot Court; and Walter Finney, 19, interning in the mailroom. Most, when asked, said meeting new people is one of the things they like most about their jobs, but they also enjoy running into high school classmates who are now MGA students.

Project SEARCH participants will rotate among different University departments, spending 10 weeks in each one so they can learn a variety of skills. MGA will host the interns through spring 2020.

“By then they’ll have resumes and letters of recommendation they can use to apply for part-time or full-time jobs,” Boyd said.

One study concluded that Project SEARCH has a post-program employment success rate of 68 percent, an outcome that exceeds the national average employment rate for people with disabilities.

Time will tell if Bibb County achieves similar results. But Project SEARCH has already succeeded in strengthening ties between MGA and the school district.

“Everybody at Middle Georgia State has welcomed us with open arms,” Soles said. “They’ve put a lot of thought into the skills they can teach these interns.”