Austin Tidwell, center, visits with his mother, Christy Tidwell, clinic operations supervisor at Grants Ferry, and Kenneth McCreary, interim director of supply chain logistics.
Austin Tidwell, center, visits with his mother, Christy Tidwell, clinic operations supervisor at Grants Ferry, and Kenneth McCreary, interim director of supply chain logistics.
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Young adults with disabilities SEARCH for just the right job at UMMC

Published on Monday, August 6, 2018

By: Ruth Cummins

Austin Tidwell is 6’4” of amazing.

So says mom Christy Tidwell, supervisor of clinic operations at the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s Grants Ferry office. “He’d rather fish than breathe. He loves to hunt,” she said of Austin, who received his certificate from the Rankin County school district in May.

Austin has autistic tendencies and is in need of job skills that will help him make the school-to-work transition. He’s among up to 12 Rankin County district students who just graduated or who will graduate in May getting that learning experience at UMMC through Project SEARCH, a national initiative designed to help students with disabilities obtain competitive, community-based employment.

Begun at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 1996, Project SEARCH operates in more than 500 sites across the country and in a number of sites internationally. Project SEARCH is expanding to central Mississippi through a collaboration of the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services, UMMC and the Rankin County district. The Mississippi Council for Developmental Disabilities also is providing assistance.

Previously, the sole Project SEARCH site in the state was the University of Southern Mississippi.

The intent of the 10-month program is for students to work in a business setting that will give them a teaching and learning experience, as well as the chance to gain skills that make them attractive to employers.

Elizabeth Youngblood

“We are very proud to be the first health care provider in Mississippi, and only the second organization in the state, to have a Project SEARCH program,” said Liz Youngblood, CEO of UMMC’s adult hospitals and clinics. “Our team is very excited to be part of such a wonderful program that is consistent with our mission to improve the lives of Mississippians.”

Also taking part is Wesley Tyson, son of Lori Tyson, UMMC administrative house supervisor of nursing on the main campus. “We are thrilled,” she said of Wesley, who will graduate in May. “Our hopes are that he gets training so that he can have a productive job and retirement and insurance, and to build his personal and social skills. This internship will help with all that.”

Rankin County school district transition instructor Jennifer Jackson, left, welcomes Wesley Tyson, son of UMMC nursing supervisor Lori Tyson, right, to the Project SEARCH program at the Medical Center.
Rankin County school district transition instructor Jennifer Jackson, left, welcomes Wesley Tyson, son of UMMC nursing supervisor Lori Tyson, right, to the Project SEARCH program at the Medical Center.

Wesley, who also copes with autism, “is an avid action figure collector,” his mom said. “He likes movies, TV and swimming.”

When her son found out that he’d been chosen for Project SEARCH, Tyson said, Wesley said, “That’s fine, but I’m going to tell you right now: I’m not going to do surgery!’

Wesley said he needs a little time to think about where he’d like to work on campus. “I think it will be really good,” he said.

Each student’s day will be structured. They’ll all ride the same bus to campus, arriving at 8 a.m. with a special education teacher from their district. Meeting in the Classroom Wing, they will discuss their workday for an hour-plus before heading to one of the three internship sites they’ll choose to rotate through during the program.

Departments and floors that have stepped forward to host workers include Physical Facilities, Supply Chain, Shipping and Receiving, Printing, Ambassador Services, Crown Laundry, Morrison Food Service, Crothall EHS, Rehabilitation Services and Patient Equipment.

Students assigned to Shipping and Receiving will be busy with work that includes delivering supplies throughout campus and stocking bins on patient floors, said Kenneth McCreary, interim director of supply chain logistics.

“This sounded like a good project when they brought it to our attention,” he said. “My family has always had an affection for children with special needs. Sometimes, it can be hard to plug into an institution this big when your skills set is a little limited, but we can hopefully help someone become employable and learn a set of skills.”


Students will wear a badge, have special shirts identifying them as Project SEARCH participants, and eat lunch with their coworkers. “They will be visible,” said Casey Bridges, supervisor of nuclear medicine and PET-CT who’s overseeing Project SEARCH at UMMC. “We want employees to see them, and we want them to greet our staff.

“We want to teach them the trades we have here. Hopefully, as they test each area of their rotation, they will discover what they enjoy,” Bridges said. “They will have job coaches from the Department of Rehabilitation Services working with them to see if a rotation fits their disability and their needs.”

Students will work from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Then, they’ll return to the Classroom Wing to journal about their experiences and get help with life skills such as team building, technology, communication, job search skills and money management before heading back to the school district.

The overall experience aims to increase their independence, confidence and self-esteem, and to link them with vocational rehabilitation and other adult service agencies. “They will build marketable job skills,” Bridges said. “We want to hire them. We need the workforce, and a good set of people who are loyal and willing to work.”

There are benefits for the businesses that employ Project SEARCH participants, Bridges said. They include access to a diverse talent stream with skills that match labor needs, the chance to make a positive, lifelong difference for someone with special needs, and the opportunity to change their workplace culture to that of helping others.

“Our mission as a state agency is perfectly matched with that of Project SEARCH,” said Chris Howard, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services.  “Our goal is for these interns to gain fulltime employment with benefits after they have completed this program.  Our partnership with UMMC, Rankin County Schools and the Mississippi Council for Developmental Disabilities, is making this goal possible.”

“Project SEARCH is more than just another program at UMMC,” Bridges said. “Project SEARCH will provide students with disabilities the opportunity to acquire marketable job skills they will carry for a lifetime. This project is a dream come true for many parents of a child with a disability and for the students themselves.”

Christy Tidwell couldn’t agree more.

“This is an opportunity that individuals with disabilities wouldn’t have outside” UMMC, she said. “He’s a love. He can carry on a conversation with adults. One of the biggest things that makes his mama smile is that people say he’s respectful. That’s a good trait for the workplace.”

Wesley will finish up a job at Goodwill Industries right before Project SEARCH begins, Tyson said. “He’s very excited about the retirement system at UMMC. I’ve explained that to him,” she said. “And staying somewhere a long time … He doesn’t like to change up a lot.”

Austin Tidwell has high hopes for Project SEARCH. “It will train me to get a good job,” he said.

“Our biggest hope is that he will find gainful employment, but we want him to be happy more than anything,” Christy Tidwell said of Austin. “We want him to feel successful, and that he can do whatever he wants to do.”