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Howard County partnerships get Project SEARCH off to a fast start

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, far left, with other county officials, Project SEARCH participants and family members.
Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, far left, with other county officials, Project SEARCH participants and family members. (Courtesy Howard County Government.)

When Jann Gartside first heard about Project SEARCH, she immediately thought of her daughter, Amanda.

"I thought, 'This is a perfect fit for her,'" Gartside said.

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She was right.

Project SEARCH is a national program designed to help young people with disabilities transition from their last year in school — most are high school seniors — to the workplace. It helps them develop work skills they can use to find a job and social skills that will help them the rest of their lives.

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On Thursday, Amanda was one of 12 interns in the Banneker Room of Ellicott City's George Howard Building receiving a certificate for completing the Project SEARCH initiative.

"Before Project SEARCH, she had some trouble interacting with other people she didn't know," Gartside said. "And now she has the confidence to do that. Seeing that improvement in her has just been amazing to watch.

"Now the goal is to find a job. She's looking very hard and working to get interviews. She's had one interview so far, so we're hopeful."

Said Amanda: "I had fun working and learning new skills."

Project SEARCH began in Howard County at the start of the 2014-2015 school year. A partnership between Howard County Public Schools, The Arc of Howard County, the Howard County Autism Society and the Maryland Division of Rehabilitation Services provided direction and grants from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, and the Lisa Higgins Hussman Foundation gave financial support.

County government also played a vital role, providing a workplace for the interns. The county agencies where interns worked included the Department of Citizen Services, Department of Finance, Department of Recreation and Parks, County Council, Bureau of Facilities, Bureau of Utilities, Department of Inspections, Licenses and Permits, and the Department of Planning and Zoning. One intern also worked in the clerk's office of the Circuit Court.

At the ceremony Thursday, County Executive Allan Kittleman thanked the organizations, officials and mentors for their support in making the program a success.

He also acknowledged the parents of the interns, saying, "Thank you for trusting your children with us so that we could help them as best we could."

He told the first class of interns – Amanda Gartside, Terence Butler Jr., Alfredo Graciano Jr., Russell Grumbine, Matthew Higgs, Amanda Jacober, Alexandra McIntyre, Dana Murray, Jane Suh, Sanjay Variyam, Daniel White and Jacob Yelnosky — that they had "set the bar so high" for classes to come.

The interns participated in three 10-week work rotations during the school year. They started each day at 8 a.m. with an hour instruction provided by county teacher Alex Gerus, paraeducator Tameka Addison, Kim McKay, project manager of Project SEARCH for the Arc of Howard County; and job coach Linda Hoyt, also from the Arc of Howard County. After the class, the interns were taken to their job sites.

Interns were interviewed before and after each job rotation.

"This program really lets them get embedded in a workplace and feel like part of the workplace environment," said McKay. "It gives them a chance to see themselves as an adult in the world of work."

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At the ceremony, McKay thanked all the mentors for their support and input.

"The mentors gave us honest, constructive criticism and we appreciate that very much," she said.

This year's group of interns consisted of nine county students in their last year of school and three young adults who completed their education a year earlier.

Next year's class of 12, which has been selected, will be all county students in their final year. County government will again provide work sites.

Carol Beatty, who worked at the Arc of Howard County for 21 years, including as its executive director, before leaving this year to become the secretary of the Maryland Department of Disabilities, praised the program and its graduates at the ceremony.

"They know successful employment is a goal they can achieve," said Beatty.

McKay acknowledge that the year "has not been without its challenges," but added that "it really has come together well."

"The partnership has really made the difference," she said. "To have all the partners at the table fully engaged in what we needed to get done was very helpful, and made the challenges not seem so challenging to overcome."

For Murray, an intern who cares deeply about protecting the environment, the program showed her "that I'm a hard worker."

It showed her mother something else.

"Dana's confidence level was visibly increased starting the first day she came home," said Dawn Murray. "There was an obvious difference in her personality. She held her head higher, spoke more clearly and took herself more seriously. And it's still that way."

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