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Finding their way through Project SEARCH
Program graduates its second class
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Myles Horton raises his fist in celebration after receiving his certificate for completing the Project SEARCH program. Presenting the certificate are state Sen. Jack Hill and Effingham Health System's Vicky Little. - photo by Photo by Paul Floeckher

Teenage years are awkward enough, and Brandie Butler’s were further complicated by emotional and behavioral challenges.

She said she “was acting up a lot in eighth grade,” but it wasn’t until 11th grade that she was diagnosed with depression and anger management disorder.

To make matters worse, her family lost their home in Springfield around the start of the current school year. Butler, her parents and two brothers moved into a hotel and lived there for a few months, she said.

“There were a lot of times, a lot of times,” Butler acknowledged, that she found herself wondering what was next for her in life.

Then, right around the time her family became homeless, a glimmer of hope emerged. Butler became involved in Project SEARCH, which was starting its second year in Effingham County schools.

Project SEARCH is a nationwide program to provide internships for people with developmental disabilities and train them in entry-level positions. When the students complete their internships, they have job skills to enter the workforce.

“It’s meant a lot to me,” Butler said of the program. “It’s helped me talk to people eye-to-eye. It’s helped me overcome my talking disabilities and helped me work a lot better in the community.”

Butler was one of nine Effingham students to complete Project SEARCH in the 2013-14 school year. As in the program’s first year, all participants interned with Effingham Health System.

The nine students received certificates in a graduation ceremony Tuesday at the Effingham College and Career Academy. Honored were Butler, Brandon Brant, Destiny Durrance, Zackary Gale, Michael Holton, Myles Horton, Eric Jordan, Jordan Nease and Keymond Reed.

Eight of the graduates already have been hired by local companies and the ninth is nearing job placement, according to Denise Dawson, transition facilitator for Effingham County schools.

“We have the goal of 100 percent employment every year,” Dawson said.

Two of the Project SEARCH graduates were promoted from Effingham Health System interns to employees, and a third remained on the EHS campus to work at Morrison’s Café. Two others have jobs with A&V Electric, and Edwards Interiors and Bahama Joe’s each hired one.

Butler is working at LongHorn Steakhouse in Pooler, and is looking ahead to her next goals of driving and living on her own. She said Project SEARCH came along at just the right time, when she and her family were at a low point.

“It’s God’s way of helping you out in life,” Butler said.

Each intern put in a full day, five days a week, at Effingham Health System. The program is divided into three 10-week rotations, giving each intern job skills and experience in three different departments.

Vicky Little, Effingham Health’s executive director of support services, encouraged more local businesses to become involved in Project SEARCH so students with learning disabilities will have additional opportunities for internships and full-time employment.

“These students are a joy,” Little said.

A SEARCH success story
This time last year, Lindsey Kussow was being honored as one of Project SEARCH’s first 10 graduates in Effingham County.

She has enjoyed quite a year since, including receiving a national award. Kussow addressed the graduates at this year’s ceremony, where she was glad to see Project SEARCH concluding a successful second year.

“That means a lot to me,” she said. “That means the program keeps growing every year.”

Kussow contracted spinal meningitis at just 5 months old and often had seizures. The seizures scarred the areas of the brain that control functions such as comprehension and long-term memory.

School was always a challenge for her, and she was unable to pass the math section of the Georgia High School Graduation Test in four attempts. Kussow needed an option to earning a regular high school diploma and attending college.

In her Project SEARCH internship, Kussow learned the basics of recordkeeping and discovered her aptitude for office work. She took a job in Edwards Interiors’ accounting department, and has received two raises and consistently positive reviews.

The Council for Exceptional Children honored her with its 2014 Yes I Can Award. She accepted the award at a ceremony in Philadelphia last month.

Project SEARCH leaders good-naturedly reminded Kussow on Tuesday that she barely spoke when she started in the program. A year later, she asked to speak at the graduation.

“Since Project SEARCH, I have become much more confident and sure of myself,” Kussow told the graduates. “If it hadn’t been for Project SEARCH, I am not sure where I would be today.”

The leadership team is ahead of last year’s pace in placing graduates in jobs. At the 2013 graduation, four students had been hired, though in time all 10 were.

Dawson said the program is effective because of the teamwork by everyone involved, including a long list of people with Effingham Health, the school system and local businesses and governments.

“If each person didn’t do their part, we wouldn’t be having the success that we’re having,” she said. “It is everybody doing what they need to do for the kids. It’s paying off.”