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— Last week, I had the privilege of attending the second graduation for Project SEARCH interns at Ouachita County Medical Center.

If you are unaware of what Project SEARCH does, Samantha Garrard - instructor coordinator for the program - describes it as “a nine month unpaid internship for young people with disabilities in our community, or seniors that are about to graduate and are taking special-education classes.”

Interns show up five days a week at OCMC and learn skill-sets in areas such as grounds-keeping, laundry, records and other jobs at the hospital.

When the program started, Gus Garcia - one of the interns from the first program - stood at a podium and gave a speech detailing how the program had changed him and taught him responsibility. Flash forward a year, and in 2018 Garcia was awarded the Matthew Lyles Community Ambassador Award from the Camden Noon Lions Club. He currently works at Stage. He is living proof of the success of the program.

I’d like to echo sentiments from Mayor Julian Lott who spoke at the program last Friday: Project SEARCH is not something that focuses on disabilities, but the abilities of the dedicated group of interns.

How easy would it be to assume they couldn’t hold jobs or learn? How much easier still, would it have been to write this project off as a waste of time? But thankfully, OCMC and the community of Camden hasn’t done that. Local businesses have taken a vested interest in the program and hired individuals who went through the program: Some were hired by the hospital, but others went to work in other sectors.

Which brings me to a common misconception about the program: It doesn’t train these young people to only work at a hospital. It trains them to work in the real world. A world that can be demanding and fast paced.

The interns learn interview skills and are held accountable by managers. They earn a paycheck and pay income tax. In short, they are participating actively in a society that, to be brutally frank, 30 years ago may have shunned or coddled them - never giving them a chance to prove themselves.

I have one final story about Project SEARCH. Earlier this year, my wife had an outpatient procedure done at OCMC. It was nothing terribly serious, but she had to be put under anesthesia and while she was recovering, and intern from Project SEARCH was in the room with her providing her ice water and generally making sure she was OK.

The intern, Michelle, was attentive as well as confident as she took care of my wife. Her calm demeanor made the experience of waking up from anesthesia much more pleasant for my wife. I’d like to use this column to personally thank her and OCMC for the professionalism and courtesy that was displayed that day.

I honestly cannot champion this program enough. If you know someone who might benefit from Project SEARCH, contact Project SEARCH State Coordinator Judy Smith at Judy.Smith@Arkansas.gov, or call 501-766-3948. They can also access an application online at www.projectsearcharkansas.org., or call Jenny Adams at 501-529­-3139.

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