It's graduation season, and students across Hamilton County are celebrating their accomplishments and looking toward the future.
Five Hamilton County students celebrated a particularly special milestone Wednesday as they completed Project Search, an on-the-job internship program at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee for people with intellectual disabilities.
2019 PROJECT SEARCH GRADUATES
Brittany Barnett, Soddy-Daisy High School
Martin Boatwright, Soddy-Daisy High School
Christopher Konieczny, Soddy-Daisy High School
Austin Mayse, Soddy-Daisy High School
D’Angelo McReynolds, Hixson High School
The students, who have all completed special education programs at their home high schools, spent the school year at the BlueCross campus, doing rotations in different departments and performing real jobs alongside company employees.
Brittany Barnett said she really liked her coworkers.
"They treated me like any other employee," she said.
Her classmate, Martin Boatwright, agreed, saying the whole group felt that way.
Boatwright spent time working for BlueCross' environmental services department in the cafeteria and the fitness center, as well as in the company's BlueCare department.
"It was challenging at first to get used to the campus," he said. "But it was fun."
Boatwright plans to go to college and get a degree in business management.
After working in the mailroom, Chris Konieczny said he is looking for a similar part-time job.
The program, a partnership among Hamilton County Schools, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation and the state's Vocational Rehabilitation services, launched last fall.
Individuals with disabilities often have access to a lot of services while in high school (where they can stay up to age 21 in Tennessee), but that access may disappear when they leave school. Often, they miss out on job training and don't have access to internships or real-world experiences.
Students spent part of each day in class and the rest working alongside other BlueCross employees.
"They are learning skills and getting job training that normally individuals with disabilities wouldn't get," said Wendy Evett, program and instructor coordinator for Project Search.
Project Search was developed at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in the 1990s with the goal of preparing young people with disabilities for employment and help in the transition from school to adulthood.
Samuel Riggan said BlueCross aimed to give the students a real-world experience. They had to interview with the departments for each internship rotation, and departments would choose the student who was the best fit.
"We tried to make sure the internship and entire experience was as realistic as possible," he said.
Students rotated through facilities, maintenance and mailroom placements and participated in job training activities, such as an interview day with companies including Tennessee Valley Authority, BlueCross and EPB last summer.
Having the interns on campus also helped BlueCross employees think about how the company includes and supports employees with disabilities. Samuel Riggan, human resources project manager at BlueCross, said departments that hosted interns received disability awareness training, and Stephani Ryan, vice president for long-term services and supports, announced that the company planned to more intentionally seek out employees with special education diplomas or certificates as a result of the program.
"Everyone has that person in their life with a disability," Riggan said. "This throws off the curtain and allows us to talk about that. We came together as employees to be the best possible."
Garfield Adams, exceptional education director for Hamilton County Schools, praised the students during the celebration ceremony Wednesday.
"Today is your day to reflect on your great accomplishments. Use this to motivate yourselves to who you want to be in life and in your future," he said.
Boatwright will be staying at BlueCross. He was offered — and accepted — a permanent position, along with his classmate D'Angelo Reynolds.
Barnett has already secured a job in EPB's human resources department.
"Project Search changed me and and it made me more independent," she said.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.