For nine months Bridget Cummings, worked four hours a day under an internship at Memorial Regional Medical Center during her senior year at Atlee High School.
First, she worked in the hospital’s birthplace unit, where she put together cribs and did some sanitation work. Then, she worked in radiology and learned how to fax, copy, record information and answer phones.
June 11, Cummings and seven other Hanover students with autism or an intellectual disability graduated from the program, Project SEARCH, which allowed them to work 900 hours at a Bon Secours hospital in the area. Students with disabilities learn job skills needed to work in various professions by the time they graduate from high school.
Four of the students in the program have autism and the other four have intellectual disabilities. Because the program extended last year to Memorial Regional Medical Center in Mechanicsville, it will not be extended to more Virginia hospitals the following year.
“We’re helping the community and the nation understand what schools need to do to better prepare students with disabilities — both autism and intellectual disabilities — find employment when they leave school,” said Jennifer McDonough, director of national autism research and coordinator of the statewide Project SEARCH program.
McDonough said many students who graduate under an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, do not leave high school with a job set in stone.
“This program is meant to make a seamless transition from school to work,” McDonough said.
Before Cummings graduated high school and the program, she was offered a unit secretary position at the Mechanicsville hospital in the birthplace unit. Project SEARCH strives to match students up with jobs.
Cummings said she enjoyed her time with the program and her favorite thing was meeting new people.
Throughout the internship, Cummings and other students in the program work with a job coach who learns the skills needed for the positions and teaches them to the
individuals and stands by their side throughout the process.
“After their first two internships, [the job coach] really starts working hard at finding employment for the students because that is the goal of the project,” McDonough said.
The job could be with either of the units when the student interned or somewhere else in the hospital and the job coach looks at where the student could potentially work and where they would be the best fit.
After Cummings finished her internships, she had a week where she volunteered at the hospital in both units before starting her job. Her job coach, April Lynch, an employment specialist for Virginia Commonwealth University, said that time helped her learn the new skills she would need for the job.
“She picked it up so quickly,” Lynch said.
Her supervisor Beth Lavely, administrative director with Bon Secours, gave high praise to Cummings for all her hard work during the internship.
“She was such a hard worker and we said ‘We like this girl!’” Lavely said.
During her time in the internship, Lavely said Cummings brought something special to the staff.
“Our staff loves working with Bridget and it’s been such a morale booster,” Lavely said.
Their staff made it a point to celebrate Cummings’ birthday before her internship ended. Lavely said she and her staff are ecstatic Cummings is able to come back and work with them.
“We’re not just educating eight students, we’re really touching a number of lives,” McDonough said.