A group of Pitt County high schoolers with developmental and intellectual disabilities got a special send-off on Tuesday evening as they turned their tassels and officially graduated from a program designed to help them earn gainful employment in the real world.

Six local seniors — Jessa Dancy, Russell Dawson, Tylique Haley, Titeandra Hall, Christina Wilson, Nicholas Wright — were the stars of the show at the Project SEARCH Vidant graduation held at Vidant Medical Center’s Monroe Conference Center. 

They heard personal testimonies from teachers and supervisors and watched an emotional video highlighting their accomplishments during the program, from helping to manage the cafeteria to office organization, to patient interaction. For some, it sure beat sitting in class.

Wilson was one of the workers who got to interact directly with patients. She helped push patients to their rooms and also helped stock and fold blankets in the nursery. She said the teachers and her fellow students are really special to her — so special, in fact, that she hopes to continue to work in a hospital setting once she officially graduates from school. 

“It’s better than going to school,” Wilson, an Ayden-Grifton High School student said. “I like this better because you get the work experience. It’s cool.”

The ultimate goal of the one-year Vidant internship is to teach students skills that will transfer into their future jobs. In addition to a work environment tailored to help build the necessary skills, students also take part in daily classroom instruction on employability and life skills, as well as job placement assistance. They spent an hour or two at school and then get bused to the hospital for four- or five-hour shifts before heading back to school.

Shakira Henderson, senior administrator for the center of research and grants, had Hall helping in her department out. She said Hall did so well that in the first couple weeks she already had completed months worth of tasks. In addition, Henderson said Hall’s smile always gave the other workers in her department a lift. 

“Having the ability to give a young professional the ability to have real life skills was incredible,” Henderson said. “We were ecstatic to be able to have help. I think one of the things that is incredible about this program is that they were able to have diverse experiences.”

Those experiences are important, particularly for students with disabilities who often are not offered the same opportunities as their peers. Conversely, not every student with a disability is willing or able to work, so giving the ones that are a chance to take another step in that direction is all the more important, according to Pitt County Schools Superintendent Ethan Lenker, who was on hand to lead the students in the tassel turning. 

“It’s so special because it’s so personal,” Lenker said. “The personality in each of these young students comes out and that’s what makes it so different. We get a chance to hear a little bit about them and it’s just special.”

Project SEARCH, a national organization whose roots can be traced back to the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, said on its website that it has helped employ 65 percent of its graduates, maintaining a 90 percent retention rate in those jobs. 

Vidant will be welcoming one of the recent graduates straight out of the class — Wright will work in the Food and Nutrition department.

Project SEARCH Vidant started in 2015 and is a collaboration between N.C. Council on Developmental Disabilities, Project SEARCH, Pitt County Schools, Vidant Medical Center, Vocational Rehabilitation, and RHA Health Services.

So far, the Vidant chapter has graduated 19 students in its four classes and already has eight students enrolled for next year. The capacity for the program is 12 and interested students are encouraged to sign up for potential enrollment in the program.

“Every student has a little bit of a different track,” Lenker said. “Our goal in public education is to help every student get ready for their next job, their next part of life. We want to focus on all students and give them an opportunity. This is an amazing opportunity and you see that here tonight with these six students.”

Contact Brian Wudkwych at bwudkwych@reflector.com or 252-329-9567 and follow @brianwudkwych on Twitter.