For students with special needs, finding employment after graduation may feel impossible.

Mary Washington Healthcare recently offered eight students from five Stafford County high schools a helping hand with that challenge through Project SEARCH, a nationwide program that provides real-life work experience combined with training in employability and independent living skills.

The students spent the past school year working in various departments throughout Mary Washington Healthcare, and became the first class to graduate from Mary Washington Healthcare Project SEARCH on Thursday. The ceremony was held at the Fick Conference Center in Fredericksburg.

The local hospital system’s program is one of several in Virginia, all of which are conducted in partnership with a host employer, a local secondary school, a supported employment agency and the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services.

Mary Washington Healthcare is partnering with Stafford County Public Schools and RSVP Inc. to provide three 10-week rotations through some of its departments. Students get to perform such tasks as filing specimen slides in the pathology lab; sorting medications in the pharmacy; receiving and delivering supplies from the materials management department; resetting patient rooms in medical imaging, same-day surgery and radiology; and a variety of other responsibilities.

Not only do they learn about the health care environment, they acquire competitive, marketable and transferable skills that enable them to apply for related positions in the job market. Students learn about communication, teamwork and problem-solving, which are important to overall development as a young worker.

The ultimate goal is for participants to secure competitive employment at the host business or within their community upon completion of the program. Students are currently applying for various positions within Mary Washington Healthcare and in the community, and one graduate has already been hired to work in Mary Washington Hospital’s environment services department.

Project SEARCH was developed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 1996. Erin Riehle, who was director of its Cincinnati Children’s Emergency Department at the time, felt that since the hospital served individuals with developmental disabilities, it made sense to hire some in that group. She wondered if it would be possible to train them to fill some of the high-turnover, entry-level positions in her department.

She presented her ideas to Susie Rutkowski, then the special education director at Great Oaks Career Campuses. They partnered to form Project SEARCH, which has grown from that single program in Cincinnati to a large international network of sites.

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Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407