The College Station school district had its first graduation ceremony of the year Tuesday afternoon as five students completed the district's Project SEARCH program.
In its fourth year in the College Station school district, five students added their names to the list of Project SEARCH graduates, bringing the total to 20 thus far.
"We do a lot of great things in College Station ISD, but this may be one of the best," Superintendent Clark Ealy said about the program.
Established to help students between the ages of 18 and 22 who have graduated from high school transition into the workforce, the international Project SEARCH has chapters in both the College Station and Bryan school districts. The Bryan school district's program had its graduation ceremony last week.
College Station students spent their yearlong internship in various departments at Baylor Scott & White Hospital, where the ceremony was hosted. Some of their responsibilities included cleaning rooms, testing heart defibrillators and IV machines and helping in food services.
"The hospital is just an excellent place for our students to learn job skills. There's so many different types of jobs here, so they can really get a lot of different experiences. They can work anywhere from food service to [an] operating room, so we can really give them a variety of things," Project SEARCH instructor Darren Wright said. "We try to match what their interests are with internship sites here, so they can get experiences that they need to be able to build that resume up to match what they're looking for. It's just a wonderful, encouraging, supportive place. I'm just thrilled to be a part of it."
The partnership between the school district and the hospital began in 2014 when representatives from the district and Project SEARCH met with Jason Jennings, president of the Baylor Scott & White Medical Center-College Station.
People constantly submit requests to the hospital for partnerships or sponsorships. It only took about two minutes for Jennings to decide Project SEARCH was something it needed to pursue.
"When you can put education and health care together, it's just a natural fit," Jennings said. The program is a win-win situation for the hospital, because not only do the staff members get to provide a learning space for the students, but also some will stay with the hospital even after the program and their internship ends.
Of the five graduates this year, three will continue working at Baylor Scott & White as regular employees.
"It's kind of like they're part of the family. You've known them for a year, and now they're here," he said. "I wish we could hire all of them. We're blessed that we are continuing to grow and continue to look for strong folks we can add to our team. It's just a blessing to add some of the Project SEARCH students."
Jennings said he thinks the hospital staff gets more out of the program than the students because they see the students who might have different challenges "come to work with passion, a smile on their face, can't wait to help," and it refuels the hospital staff and the students' mentors.
Next year, CSISD administrators expect they could have about 10 or maybe more students in Project SEARCH for its fifth year at the district.
The growth, Jennings said, shows the program is a good thing that is spreading in the community.
The students' graduation from the program is Molley Perry's favorite day of the year as executive director of special services and accountability for CSISD.
"It is such a testament to what can happen when you join forces with community and other agencies and business and support kids in a way that's so authentic. You can talk about job development all day long, but when you really, truly get into the work setting and you give these young adults an opportunity to learn and grow, it's phenomenal what happens," she said. "It's not just about those technical skills; it's about all of those soft skills. You heard about the eye contact and going from shy to being very communicative, and that's what we hear every year is just the growth that we see as young adults, not just as workers. It's just one of my favorite things."
Each of the five graduates told the crowd of well-wishers they would recommend Project SEARCH to others.
"Project SEARCH has been a great experience. I really would highly recommend it to anyone who needs work experience who doesn't think they have work experience but who might need it in the future," graduate Matthew LaStrapes said, noting he learned a lot through his various internships.
He has two jobs now -- working at HEB and Lowe's -- but ultimately his goal is to work in the railroad industry.
"I think Project SEARCH has really gotten me to that point," he said.
Claire Pace, another graduate, told the audience she learned through Project SEARCH how to build relationships with people and how to prepare for and act in a professional interview.
"When she first came to us, she was super shy. She barely made eye contact with you when she talked to you, but she would always be there, no matter what I asked of her, she did it, and she did it completely… I'm so very proud of her. It was awesome to watch her grow," Scott & White employee Jennifer Siciliano said about Pace.
Matthew Schooler also built those relationships with his co-workers, with whom he will continue working next month.
"I'm just glad to be in this hospital and also to become hired in this hospital," he said. "I had a great time in Project SEARCH, and they taught me a lot about how to make a down payment on a car or how to pay taxes and bills and everything. I'm just honored to be in this hospital and get hired here."
With the different internships, the program makes the students handle changes in their assignments every nine weeks and meet new people in their new department, parent Kevin LaStrapes said.
"I think it does a very good job of emulating employment and then the independent living skills to support your employment or to allow you to be employed," he said.
LaStrapes said he has seen his son Matthew become more confident and communicate more directly after Project SEARCH and is also better equipped to handle and resolve conflict.
"He's done really well. It's really a great program for kids that are wanting to live independently and need some stepping stones to get there. That's all we were seeing is the advantage of it, and I'm glad he got to take part."