Project Search, a national school-to-work program, aims to provide both employment and empowerment for special needs students in the city of Lynchburg and Campbell County Public Schools.

The program, which is located within Centra’s Lynchburg General Hospital, teaches students job skills to enable them to find and keep employment after graduation and when their time in the school system ends.

“The curriculum has a variety of topics such as team building, work ethic, hygiene — any kind of important skills they will need to know on the job site,” skills trainer Lauren Adams said.

Adams works for Stand Up Inc., an employment specialist partnered with Project Search. Other partners are the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services and Centra Health.

Project Search follows the LCS school calendar and offers students internships of nine to 10 weeks in three different departments throughout Centra during the course of the school year. The nine students involved — five from Campbell County and four from Lynchburg — work in departments such as food services, laundry, materials management and other areas either independently or with the guidance of a mentor or skills coach.

“That’s the strength of this program; it’s tailored to the student’s individual educational needs,” said Nick Pontius, Campbell County Public Schools’ director of pupil personnel.

Pontius said Project Search fits the division’s “mission to support our kids having opportunities after high school,” and the division was eager to “jump on board” with the program when it launched in the fall.

All nine students are graduates of the Lynchburg or Campbell County school divisions. State law requires school divisions to provide support services to special education students until the age of 22. Adams said Project Search typically takes students nearing the end of that eligibility so it can steer them into the work force.

“We want all of our kids to be able to leave and not be tied to a life of poverty; we want them to be able to have jobs and a livelihood,” said Amanda Myers-Ramirez, an LCS special education teacher.

Project Search teaches general topics such as organization, social skills and hygiene but also provides students with detailed analyses of what they will need to know and do for each internship assignment.

“We start off really simple; we work on very simple skills, then maybe [in] their second internship we add to that, we stretch them and help them grow. Then the third internship, ideally, is going to mimic what they want to do for a job, so that they’re all ready to go and can smoothly make that transition,” Adams said.

The internships are designed to provide students with varied work experiences by exposing them to the different job skills required across Centra’s many departments.

For Myers-Ramirez, Project Search is a “passion project” she has hoped to bring to LCS since 2006. That vision became a reality in the fall when the program officially began. Though LCS launched Project Search, Campbell County was invited to participate to fill all open student positions.

Initial funding came from a one-time grant that covered the $15,000 introductory cost for Project Search training and curriculum. LCS and Campbell County collaborate to fund staff positions to teach students in the program. Future costs will include a $500 licensing fee for Project Search.

As host, Centra provides the areas where students work as well as a training room where they meet. Students work shifts from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and then report to the training room, where they learn about varied topics such as preparing for a job interview and time management.

“It benefits everyone for these students to grow their skills and be in the workforce in any capacity,” said Shannon Meadows, director of Human Resources for Centra.

After their year in the program ends, students could be hired on at Centra or elsewhere.

“Obviously we’d love to be able to employ the students, but it’s their choice where they want to go, and our job is to help them get there, hopefully with skills they obtained here,” Meadows said.

Drew Trepanitis, an LCS graduate and Project Search intern, has done a variety of tasks across different departments, but working with linens in Centra’s laundry services has been his favorite.

Along the way, he said he’s learned about time management and communication skills.

Myers-Ramirez taught Trepanitis at E.C. Glass High School, and she said she’s amazed by the progress he’s made developing work skills.

“From the start, we believed in what this could do for our kids,” Myers-Ramirez said.

Both the Lynchburg and Campbell County school divisions have in-house programs to help students find employment, but both noted job placement was about 50 percent compared to higher rates reported by the Project Search program.

At the national Project Search conference in 2016, 183 program sites representing 37 states and three countries were recognized for achieving 70 percent to 100 percent employment for their graduates.

Worldwide there are more than 300 Project Search sites, and 17 in Virginia, including a site in nearby Roanoke.

Pontius praised Project Search as a “shining example” of public-private partnerships.

“Public schools couldn’t do it by themselves, and Centra Health couldn’t do it by themselves,” he said.

When students graduate from Project Search and leave the school division, services don’t end there. Stand Up Inc. a Lynchburg-based program, continues to work with students on finding and maintaining employment.

“Our end goal is definitely independence,” Adams said.

According to Veronica Moon, a Campbell County Public Schools transition specialist, students who are recommended to Project Search by their school division must submit an application and undergo an assessment and interview with the Project Search team, which then is reviewed against a selection rubric. The next round of students will join Project Search in the fall, and an open house is planned in March for potential applicants

Interested parties should contact their school division for more information.

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