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Contributed photo / The Project SEARCH class of 2019 displays certificates of completion.
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Contributed photo / From left, D'Angelo McReynolds, Wendy Evett, Manases Gonzalez and L'Mya Muhammad.

From recognition as one of seven Tennessee companies committed to LGBTQ inclusion to supporting two of Hamilton County's 28 Future Ready Institutes, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee consistently marries beneficial business practices with supporting people in our community.

As a college student, I experienced this firsthand as an intern with the company's corporate communications team, gleaning experience in internal communications, social media planning and more – building skills and relationships I still draw on years later.

In one more example, BlueCross has embraced Project SEARCH, a national program empowering young people with disabilities by helping them build skills for integrated employment. BlueCross is the only local participating employer, and they're making an impact alongside 17 organizations across the state.

Many Project SEARCH grads receive full-time offers from BlueCross. Initiatives like this are a win-win opportunity for companies and employees alike. While certainly altruistic, they make good business sense as well, especially in a tight labor market.

 

Creating Career Paths

D'Angelo McReynolds, 20, graduated Project SEARCH last May. BlueCross didn't have an opening, but the five warehouse machinery certifications he completed under the direction of manager Todd Cameron helped him land a job quickly. Cameron brought McReynolds back to his team as soon as a position became available.

"He's a great worker," Cameron says. "Reading was the biggest thing I emphasized with him. It isn't just about this job. He had to promise me that he was going to read a book every week. He has to keep learning, you know, keep pushing."

"I like to stay busy, and I would like to advance here," McReynolds says. "Project SEARCH taught me a lot. It gave me a lot. At BlueCross, everybody likes to help. It's a big happy family."

McReynolds now mentors other Project SEARCH students, serving as a guest speaker at their meetings and giving advice on their challenges.

L'Mya Muhammad, 21, and Manases Gonzalez, 20, members of the current Project SEARCH cohort, have worked in seven BlueCross departments between the two of them.

Anyone who has been an intern knows the experience can leave you either ecstatic for the future or running in the opposite direction of the career you thought you wanted. When I ask Muhammad and Manases if they'd like to land at BlueCross permanently, they're clearly in the former category as they reply with a resounding yes.

"I get the opportunity to work around an office setting and my tasks are interesting," Muhammad says. "People are so helpful. I feel included."

Wendy Evett, Project SEARCH Instructor Coordinator, says that sense of inclusion is one of the biggest benefits of Project SEARCH.

"I see their confidence grow, because at school, their education can sometimes feel exclusive," she says. "But they're included at BlueCross as they're trying new things. It's hard to simulate what it's like to work in an office in a school setting. Being immersed makes a huge difference."

A Hamilton County Schools employee, Evett spends most of her time at BlueCross.

She participated in special education growing up, and her positive experiences inspired her to enter the field as a teacher. Prior to her work with Project SEARCH, Evett taught special education at Soddy Daisy High School for nearly 20 years.

"When one of my supervisors told me about Project SEARCH and efforts to get it started locally, I was like, 'Don't you dare give that job to anyone else.'

"I love seeing the students be successful. Our graduates would not be in the jobs they are today without this program. And while they have support from me and others, they're the heroes. They're the ones who are doing a great job."

 

How does Project SEARCH work?

One important fact I learned – public school high schoolers who have a disability may continue building credits required for high school graduation up to age 22. Project Search reaches those 18 to 21-year-old students in their final year of high school.

Like other job candidates, interested students complete an interview process, and interviewers score them via a rubric. Any students who aren't accepted can try again during the next cycle as long as they're under 21 and still working toward high school graduation.

The 2019-20 class of Project Search, BlueCross' second cohort, includes 10 students who will complete three 10-week internships over the course of the school year in various departments across the company. Placement depends on organizational needs and students' interests and aptitudes. Eighteen BlueCross departments host Project SEARCH interns. That's up from eight during the program's first year.

The interns' days run from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., beginning with a meeting with Evett to hone employability and life skills. Students then head to job sites. Two job coaches from Siskin Hospital float between the interns' placements. Each day ends by gathering with Evett and the coaches to discuss challenges, celebrate successes and review what's on deck for the next day.

"You wouldn't believe how many BlueCross jobs all three of us know how to do," Evett says of the students' support team, laughing.

Project SEARCH internships are unpaid, but students gain employable skills that shape their paths forward, whether that's full-time employment with BlueCross or roles with other companies that they qualify for based on the skills they have learned.

 

Get Involved

Evett emphasizes that Project SEARCH grads will be looking for employment and that they're ready to jump right into new opportunities after the rigorous training they complete.

She also hopes to engage more local employers that recognize the benefits of changing lives by training local untapped talent.

If your company would like to participate in Project SEARCH, contact Wendy Evett at wendy_evett@bcbst.com.

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