Last Wednesday evening, friends and family of six Project SEARCH interns gathered together at the Blue Cross & Blue Shield building in Providence for a special ceremony along with many honored guests.
There were balloons shaped to spell out “2019” and a graduation cake, and the atmosphere was alive with excitement.
The six young adults – Nicauris Canelo, Gabby Warren, Tom Marcello, Joel Suarez, Nikolas Simijis and Keenan McNeely – have been working hard as part of a one-year, school-to-work program that pools resources from the Office of Rehabilitative Services, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, Cranston Public Schools, Perspectives Corporation, the Rhode Island Deptartment of Human Services and the Department of Behavioral Health Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals.
The program is for participants who have significant intellectual and developmental disabilities and are looking to transition into competitive employment. It begins directly after their high school graduation from Cranston East or West, through the summer months and throughout the following school year, concluding with the Project SEARCH graduation in June.
On Wednesday evening, the students celebrated as they graduated from the program, each of them utilizing the skills they have learned over the past year as they move on to jobs. They have honed their skills through a series of several short internships at BCBSRI combined with classroom time focused on goal setting, independent living skills such as personal financial management, and job skills such as resume writing, interviewing and interpersonal communication.
Lauren Cotnoir, an employee of Citizens Bank, has worked with the interns over the past year, serving as a mentor who helps with mock interviews and resume skills.
“There are so many great students here,” she said. “This has been an amazing experience. There are so many opportunities for them.”
BCBSRI President and CEO Kim Keck congratulated the students and shared her pride in having had the chance to watch the six graduates progress. She highlighted some of their exciting moments from the year, which included a first-ever Project SEARCH Appreciation Day and a visit from Dennis DeJesus of Special Olympics Rhode Island. She also noted that three of the interns were participants in this year’s Special Olympics Summer Games.
“I hope you take the lessons you’ve learned with you,” she said.
Cranston Mayor Allan Fung congratulated the students on behalf of the city and thanked all of the partners involved in making the program so successful.
Past Project SEARCH graduate Garen Megrdichian shared how he has used the skills and lessons learned in Project SEARCH in his current job and how he will continue to use them going forward as he pursues future opportunities.
Kelly Starliper-Morris, a special educator with the Project SEARCH program, gave an emotional speech and spoke of the expanding opportunities ahead as the next group of students begins the process in the coming weeks.
Each graduate took to the podium to share what they had learned throughout the year, sharing both successes and challenges they have overcome, as well as what they would be doing for work after graduation. Some were already employed currently, and others would be starting work in the near future. Their employment included jobs such as housekeeping, food service, and security.
Cranston Superintendent Jeannine Nota-Masse was on hand and presented each student with a Project SEARCH diploma. Michele Simpson, Cranston Public Schools’ executive director of pupil personnel services – who launched the school department’s partnership with Project SEARCH during the 2015-16 school year – reminded the students that their journey and their work does not end with graduation, but rather is just beginning. She reminded them to use what they’ve learned and take advantage of the opportunities they have.
The students and their guests were treated to a celebration after the ceremony, including dinner and a graduation cake.