Project SEARCH helping young adults with disabilities find employment opportunities

Program helps students plan for the future

When he’s not working, Project SEARCH graduate Cameron Martin, 21, enjoys cooking, drawing, singing, collecting comic books and traveling.
Here, Martin, dressed as a Pokémon character at
a recent convention in Boston, takes part in another of his favorite hobbies — attending anime conventions.

If the dining room at Panera Bread in Seabrook looks particularly spotless, thank Cameron Martin.

Martin, a 21-year-old Hampton resident, keeps the coffee hot, makes lemonade, replenishes the napkins and soda lids and makes sure customers are happy and satisfied with the experience at the Lafayette Road eatery.

And thanks to his involvement in Project SEARCH, an innovative program, he’s also learned about what it means to be efficient, financially responsible and how to approach work every day with a sense of pride.

“I changed a lot at Project SEARCH,” Martin says. “It helped me become more mature and professional.”

Project SEARCH is an employment training and career development program for young adults with disabilities that originated at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. The program, which has been in New Hampshire since 2008, runs from September through June. The goal, by the end of the program, is employment.

“It’s designed ideally for the student who will be staying in school until age 21, and who will then participate in an employment search,” says Tina Greco, transition coordinator at the New Hampshire Department of Education’s Vocational Rehabilitation office. “The goal is that he or she will learn about themselves as a worker — their readiness as a worker, how to hone their soft skills, how to basically manage within the workplace and how to look for employment.”

There are five Project SEARCH sites throughout the state: Cheshire Medical Center, in Keene; Concord Hospital; St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua; a shared site at Dartmouth Hitchcock in Lebanon; and at Portsmouth Regional Hospital, where Martin became involved.

During the course of the program, participants take part in three, three-month long internship rotations in areas that interest them.

For Martin, it was a chance to explore his interest in helping others.

“I was a concierge (at Portsmouth Regional Hospital),” Martin says. “I got to greet and count many visitors and patients and deliver flowers.”

Martin says he learned about the importance of respecting patients’ privacy and the HIPAA laws. But he also enjoyed coming across familiar faces from Project SEARCH also working in rotations at the hospital.

“I really enjoyed delivering flowers to patients because I like the exercise and I get to say ‘hi’ to one of my classmates,” he says.

He next explored a rotation at Great Bay Community College, where he maintained facilities, cleaned and even learned to detail the school’s vehicles.

His third rotation brought him to two jobs: on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays he’d work as a houseperson at the Fairfield Inn, and on Wednesdays and Fridays he worked the register in the Portsmouth Regional Hospital gift shop. It was during these rotations Martin learned a variety of lessons, including how to live with a newfound freedom.

When the time came to move from one job to the next, he thought he’d punch-out early on his last day.

“On the day of my third performance review last April, my mom asked me not to leave early,” he says. “She told me I have to watch my spending so I don’t go bankrupt.”

It was a valuable lesson Martin took to heart.

“(Supervisor) Todd gave me a lesson about not leaving early because you need money to pay your bills or to buy miscellaneous things,” he says.

Parents looking for career and employment training opportunities for young adults can turn to Project SEARCH and expect similar results, Greco, who helps coordinate the program in New Hampshire, says.

“They’d be looking at Project SEARCH as an avenue to get help for their son or daughter to become employed,” she says. “Another expectation is that from observing from beginning to end, the person we see at the beginning of the program is not the person we see at the end of the program.”

That transformation is exactly what Martin experienced during his time in the program.

“During my first rotation and during class, I would sing songs and some of my classmates got annoyed with it and told me to stop, so I stopped,” Martin says.

It also showed him when to avoid an informal approach to his daily tasks. As Halloween approached and Martin began picking out a costume for work, he decided to instead hang it in the employee breakroom.

“The rest of my Project SEARCH year, instead of acting immature, I decided to act more professional,” he says.

Those skills, and many others, are transferable to a myriad of employment opportunities, and can be taken with the participant regardless of where their career search leads.

“The opportunities Project SEARCH gives them allows them to grow and change and gain experience,” Greco says. “It’s incredible in the way they do it — it’s so fluid and organic. You might’ve known someone coming into the program who was very timid or shy, and by the time they’re done with Project SEARCH, they’ve completely blossomed into this different person.”

Categories: Real Stories, Special Needs, Stepping Stones NH