May

Neal Carpenter, left, and Creighton Johnson roll wheelchairs down a hallway at Children's of Mississippi during their internship with Ambassador Services at UMMC.
Neal Carpenter, left, and Creighton Johnson roll wheelchairs down a hallway at Children's of Mississippi during their internship with Ambassador Services at UMMC.
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SEARCH for jobs, acceptance ends in celebration for nine graduates of vital program

Published on Monday, May 13, 2024

By: Danny Barrett Jr., dlbarrett@umc.edu

Photos By: Jay Ferchaud and Melanie Thortis/ UMMC Communications

There’s no greater Mother’s Day gift from their sons than self-reliance and communication with others for Erica Hobson and Sue Smitson. 

Hobson’s son, C.J. Walker, 19, of Brandon, and Smitson’s pride and joy, Geoffrey Smitson, 20, of Florence, have landed full-time employment thanks to Project SEARCH, a unique partnership between UMMC and community partners for high school students with developmental disabilities.

“I have always been his advocate,” said Hobson, herself an educator in special education, at McLaurin High School in Florence. “He’s become more vocal in taking up for himself while part of the program and has learned how to manage his money.”

For Sue Smitson, her son’s job and fulfilling daily life mean the chance to sit back and be thankful for the kinds of skills he now possesses.

“He’s able to calm himself now,” she said, adding her son’s challenges making it through school have included oppositional defiant disorder in addition to being on the autism spectrum. “He’s so much better off now as a result of being here.”

Walker and Smitson were two of nine who graduated from the program during a ceremony May 9. The occasion – highlighted by graduates marching out to the sounds of Kool & the Gang’s party hit “Celebration” – marked each participant’s final year of high school and landed them a certificate to show they completed the program, a national initiative involving a nine-month rotation of classroom instruction and job skills training. The goal is to give teens and young adults with developmental disabilities a chance to achieve self-sufficiency by learning job and life skills.

UMMC is among 22 Mississippi sites that host programs, which began at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 1996 and now stands at 712 sites in the U.S. and internationally. The school-to-work transition program for students with disabilities provides real-life work experiences with the outcome of competitive, integrated employment.

Locally, the Medical Center partners with the Rankin County School District, Pearl Public School District and the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services to give students hands-on training. The program at UMMC is now in its sixth year.

“We applaud their resilience, and their journey is nothing short of inspiring,” said Christina Guarino, the Rankin County School District teacher assigned to Project SEARCH. “They have shown immense courage, adaptability and a steadfast commitment to personal and professional development.”

Walker and Smitson will get to keep their daily full-time routine at UMMC, as Walker has been hired by UMMC’s supply chain department and Smitson by HHS hospital housekeeping.

“He’s in a place right now we never thought we’d see,” Sue Smitson said. “He’s worked so hard to get here.”

Successful applicants in Project SEARCH move forward in the program by learning the soft skills of employability, independent living skills, teamwork, financial literacy, health and wellness, technology, self-advocacy, social interactions with others and how to prepare and maintain employment. Participants may have a baseline certificate of completion from their schools, though many do have either a traditional or alternative diploma upon gaining their training with the program.  

George Pressley, UMMC support services administrator and liaison for Project SEARCH, reminded program graduates their solid work as interns up to now hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“I was watching you while I walked the corridors here,” Pressley said. “I’m beyond proud of you. You inspire me, and you inspire others. And you can always come and chat with me anytime.”

Front row, from left, Project SEARCH graduates Creighton Johnson, Kimberly Mariano, Nick Fletcher, Logan Crane, Christina Guarino; back row, C.J. Walker, Geoffrey Smitson, Jasmine Lee, Zach Batiste, Tommy Burnham and Neal Carpenter pose after the ceremony. Brady Bennett, who was unable to attend, was also among those graduating from the program.
Front row, from left, Project SEARCH graduates Creighton Johnson, Kimberly Mariano, Nick Fletcher, Logan Crane, Christina Guarino; back row, C.J. Walker, Geoffrey Smitson, Jasmine Lee, Zach Batiste, Tommy Burnham and Neal Carpenter pose after the ceremony. Brady Bennett, who was unable to attend, was also among those graduating from the program.

Joining fellow graduates of the program for the 2023-24 school year were Zach Batiste, 19, of Richland; Brady Bennett, 20, of Brandon; Neal Carpenter, 20, of Richland; Logan Crane, 21, Brandon, hired by HHS housekeeping; Nicholas Fletcher, 19, of Pearl; Creighton Johnson, 20, of Pearl, hired by Ambassador Services at UMMC; and Kimberly Mariano, 20, of Richland.

Additional UMMC departments that hosted interns for daily rounds this year included Volunteer Services, Office of Student Affairs-Student Union, Resuscitation Training Center, School of Nursing Simulation Lab, Interventional Radiology and the Adult Emergency Department, Patient Equipment, Shipping and Receiving and Crown Laundry.

Other host departments for the program include Animal Lab, Hospital Administration, Physical Therapy, Physical Facilities, Respiratory Equipment, Sterile Processing and the UMMC Police and Public Safety Department.