Project SEARCH helps students with special needs find success

19-year-old Ziesha goes to work at Lowes Distribution Center with a smile on her face, eager to meet new people and work with her team. Like many adults with developmental disabilities, the prospect of employment was uncertain for Zeisha, until participation in Project SEARCH gave her the skills and confidence she needed to succeed.

Zeisha feels good to have the opportunity to work. “I help my team and they help me. I can help my mom pay the bills and I always have money in my pocket.”

Project SEARCH is a one-year internship for students with developmental disabilities with the goal of employment upon graduation. This is the first year Bishop Grady Villas has participated in the program, providing an employment specialist who supplies the interns with classroom instruction, career exploration, and hands-on training through worksite rotations. Seven interns began the program in August 2017 and have spent five days a week together at their host site, Gaylord Palms Resort, with employment specialist Jeanie Martin. The program is a collaborative effort between Bishop Grady Villas, the School District of Osceola County, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, Project 10, and Gaylord Palms with startup funding provided by The Able Trust. Four of the interns have already accepted job offers.

“We are building for their future,” said Martin. “We look at life skills. We ask them where they see themselves working and living, what type of lifestyle do they want in terms of hobbies and interest. We are interested in facilitating a lifestyle – not just employment.”

Interns spend an hour and a half together in a classroom, learning skills such as: team building, technology, workplace safety, communication, social skills, and money management. The rest of their day is spent in the field, learning different aspects of work at the resort including hospitality, horticulture, banquet set-up, pool attendant and human resources clerk. In addition to their work at Gaylord Palms, students also visit other workplaces in the community so they may explore a variety of career paths.

“In the classroom there is a lovely sense of comradery. The program brings them together and gives them a structured environment in which to be social,” commented Martin, who added the interns are encouraged to spend their lunch break in the resort cafeteria with the other employees. “There are so many people representing different cultures and speaking so many different languages. It’s very international. So many of our interns have had successful experiences learning to meet other people and to respect other cultures.”

Jeffrey and Dalton are currently in the program, working 25 hours per week at Gaylord Palms. Jeffrey, age 21, said meeting new people is a highlight of the program for him, adding he enjoys getting to learn new things and experience different jobs. Dalton added, “My favorite part is seeing the smiles on the guests’ faces. It feels good because I get to do something productive.”

At the end of the program, Martin assists the interns in filling out job applications and preparing for interviews. Once a position is accepted, she provides additional on-site job coaching to help them learn their new responsibilities and reach their full potential. Martin says Project SEARCH helps break stereotypes about people with disabilities.

“Employees with developmental disabilities love their jobs and often work harder than other employees. They can be hyper-focused. They are going to bring a dedication to the table that you would not see elsewhere. Their employment may be a highlight of their life. It’s a high priority for them and it gives them so much fulfillment.”

Bishop Grady Villas is expanding its Project SEARCH program to two additional sites in Seminole County at Florida Hospital and the Hilton in Altamonte Springs beginning Fall 2018 in collaboration with Seminole County Public Schools.

By Elizabeth Wilson, Florida Catholic Correspondent – April 16, 2018


Bishop Grady Villas, a ministry of the Diocese of Orlando, supports persons with disabilities to use their God-given gifts to achieve greater independence, physical and emotional well-being, and spiritual growth through Christ-centered, personalized and wholistic residential, vocational and employment services, and community support.