Project SEARCH gives opportunities to young adults throughout Etowah County


Pictured above, Project SEARCH interns receive Smart Work Ethics certification. Pictured from left on back row: Andrew Davis, David Hodges, Kris McCormick. Pictured from left to right on middle row: Shelieyah Moore and Lily Ann Chesnut Front: Kristionna Hunter. Photo courtesy of Project SEARCH.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

For years, the non-profit organization Etowah County Project SEARCH has served young adults experiencing life with disabilities with a unique program geared towards success. Through a paid, business-led internship program, Project SEARCH provides individuals with the opportunity to explore and develop valuable experiences and skills as they transition into their future professions.

Project SEARCH began in 1996 when Director of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Emergency Department Erin Riehle partnered with Green Oaks Career Campuses Special Education Director Susie Rutkowski to launch a program to secure competitive employment for people with disabilities. Both women felt that since the hospital committed itself to serving individuals with disabilities, it should commit to hiring individuals with disabilities as well.

Since its inception, Project SEARCH has expanded from one program at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to over 500 program sites spanning across the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland and Australia. Alabama makes up 15 of those program sites.

“I have been impressed that the State of Alabama through various agencies has so many resources available to assist young people with disabilities to help them find gainful employment,” said Project SEARCH instructor Jana Downs. “These organizations work in a well-coordinated effort to assist them in achieving the goal of employment.”

Project SEARCH’s mission is to serve people with disabilities through innovative workforce and career development by educating employers about the potential of this underutilized workforce while meeting their human resource needs. Through education, experience and encouragement, Project SEARCH dedicates itself to shattering disparaging misconceptions and providing opportunities for equality and success.

“Our program has a remarkable success rate for placing young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in integrated paid employment that is both rewarding to them and valuable to their employers,” said Project SEARCH Onsite Coordinator Christy Smith.

Etowah County Project SEARCH works through an internship process. The goal for each program participant is competitive employment. To achieve that goal, Project SEARCH provides real-life work experience combined with training in employability and independent-living skills to assist young men and women with significant disabilities transition successfully into adult life. The Project SEARCH model involves an extensive period of skills training, career exploration, innovative adaptations and long-term job coaching.

“As a result, at the completion of the training program, students with significant intellectual disabilities are employed in nontraditional, complex and rewarding jobs,” said Smith. “In addition, the presence of a Project SEARCH program can bring about long-term changes in business culture that have far-reaching positive effects on attitudes about hiring people with disabilities and the range of jobs in which they can be successful.”

While Etowah County Project SEARCH performed most internships at Gadsden Regional Medical Center, the program has always partnered with local businesses throughout the community. Due to COVID-19, this year Project SEARCH is temporarily based at Gadsden State Community College while its participants complete their internships at various locations in Etowah County. Internship partners include Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services,  Gadsden State Community College, Gadsden Career Center, East AlabamaWorks!, and The Arc of Jackson County.

“Even though we are not able to be at our host site this year, we are thankful for Gadsden Regional Medical Center who partners with us to provide a site for our work-based learning,” said Browning.

Participants begin the nine-month paid internship in mid-August and complete the program in early May of the following year. At Gadsden Regional, each intern would complete up to three rotations in three different departments in the hospital. The interns begin applying for employment near the end of their second rotations, and most interns are employed by graduation in May.

If interns are not employed by graduation, they remain eligible to receive Project SEARCH services throughout the summer. Each participant that completes his or her internship receives a certificate of completion from Project SEARCH, a Smart Work Ethics Certificate, Work Keys Certificate and a CPR/BLS Certification.

“Smart Work Ethics is a program developed to create an understanding of workplace ethics, sometimes referred to as soft skills,” said Skills Training Instructor and WIOA Specialist Katie Browning. “From making a good first impression to knowing that interpersonal skills are required, students need to be aware of what their employers look for, look at, and measure when they hire and promote employees. We understand that employers are seeking workers who have soft skills, including attitude, attendance, character development, responsibility and choice—in other words, a strong work ethic.”

During their internships, Project SEARCH participants learn a variety of different skills that cater to individualized job desires. Through the support of the community and various business partnerships, Project SEARCH provides vast options for internships that introduce interns to different areas of workplace experience. Each intern acquires unique abilities and a collection of valuable and marketable proficiencies that will aid them as they pursue future professions and career paths.   

“Every step, whether big or small, is a joy to watch,” said Browning. “If I had to choose my most favorite part, it would be when you see these individuals transition into responsible, independent young adults. The confidence grows, and the smiles get bigger. Just like everyone else in this world, they want to do something that has purpose. I love that every story is different – no one’s story is the same. I learn so much from each one of them. I love that my role allows me to build relationships with our interns, and I always feel privileged that they share so much of their lives with me.”

Smith’s hope for Project SEARCH is that the program continues to grow, and the seeds once planted in Etowah County flourish throughout the community, inspiring and encouraging others to witness the extraordinary opportunities the program offers to participants. She envisions a community whose perceptions are altered for the better, and people who recognize the true purpose of Project SEARCH as it applies to every day life: to understand that these individuals are capable of greatness and success, in both employment and as outstanding citizens.

Etowah County Project SEARCH interns shared their own experiences with the program, proving the difference the internships made in their lives and their aspirations for the future.

2020-2021 intern Shaleiyah Moore expressed her excitement for her upcoming internship, stating that she enjoyed the activities and hands-on learning skills the program provides the most. She looks forward to the great workplace experience Project SEARCH will add to her resume, and hopes to be hired soon. 2020-2021 intern Brodie Whitaker’s career plans following his internship are to find a job that pays well and a job that he enjoys.

“[Project SEARCH] gave me the opportunity to learn more about myself,” said 2019-2020 intern Cecilia Lopez. “I would like to let people know who struggle with one thing in their life, that doesn’t mean you can’t succeed in anything else. What you struggle with the most can become successful if you let it.”

“I am grateful for the opportunity that I’m pretty sure no one else would have given me,” said 2019-2020 Project SEARCH intern Brandon Tarver. “I’m glad they put the effort to train me to learn the workplace, and to be able to teach me everything I need to know. I’m glad I was one of the lucky ones to be in this great program. I’m just happy that these great people are giving people the better side of the world.”

Following his internship, Tarver was hired with the City of Gadsden in November 2019. He has since remained dedicated to save his money and purchase his own travel home. The staff and instructors at Project SEARCH are overwhelmingly proud.

For more information about Etowah County Project SEARCH, visit, contact Christy Smith at 256-594-7395 or email

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