Chris Coulston received his high-school diploma on the same day he attended new employee orientation at Christiana Care Health System. He wasn’t alone — half of this year’s Project SEARCH class already had landed jobs by graduation night on June 6.

“It was life-changing,” Coulston said of the nine-month internship program, which provides hands-on work experience for people with cognitive disabilities after they have finished high school. Their diplomas are held until they complete three 10-week rotations in various departments and receive classroom instruction.

“We now have the skills to live the lives we want,” he told the crowd attending the commencement in the John H. Ammon Educational Center.

The next day, Coulston began his new job as a patient escort at Christiana Hospital, where he wheels patients to surgery, helps people navigate the halls to their appointments and accompanies patients who are discharged.

Gov. Jack Markell, a supporter of Christiana Care’s Project SEARCH program since its inception five years ago, delivered the keynote address at the commencement.

“If I had to come in for surgery, Chris is exactly the kind of person I’d want to escort me, because he would set me at ease,” Gov. Markell said.

One thing impressed him the most about the 10 graduates, he said: their positive attitude.

“Not only are you going to need to know how to do the job, but you have to have the right attitude,” he said.

Christiana Care president and CEO Janice E. Nevin, M.D., MPH, celebrates with Project SEARCH graduates, their families and friends.

The graduates also received praise from Janice Nevin, M.D., MPH, president and CEO of Christiana Care.

“There probably is no greater example of The Christiana Care Way than Project SEARCH,” Dr. Nevin said. “It’s one example of how Christiana Care serves the community through innovative partnerships. I am just thrilled to be here on the fifth anniversary.”

Since its inception at Christiana Care, Project SEARCH has hosted 41 interns, 30 of whom have secured employment, with 17 being hired by Christiana Care.

Staff from the Christiana Care program have been asked to speak at the national Project SEARCH conference because all six members of its 2015 graduating class have found jobs, said Kerry Delgado, corporate director for talent optimization.

Kimberly Wilson, manager of material distribution and logistics, called the program “heaven-sent.”

“I was always impressed with their dedication, high standards, pride and outstanding work ethic,” she said of the students.

Gov. Jack Markell and Christiana Care leaders celebrate with this year's Project SEARCH graduates.
Gov. Jack Markell and Christiana Care leaders celebrate with this year’s Project SEARCH graduates.

Each graduate took to the microphone during the ceremony to share their experience.

“One of the biggest things I learned in Project SEARCH was to turn your biggest weakness into your biggest strength,” said Sam Swift. “My biggest weakness is that I’m in a wheelchair. But we all know that wheels are faster than legs.”

He had his sights set on becoming a hospital greeter.

For implementing the first Project SEARCH site in Delaware, Christiana Care this year received the Employer of the Year award from the Division on Career Development and Transition, an international organization affiliated with the Council for Exceptional Children that promotes careers and vocations for people with disabilities.

The program itself earned a number of distinctions this school year.

Through a partnership with Concord High School, students helped invented a barcode-scanning device that makes it easier for employees with disabilities to sort medicine in pharmacies. The “Scan ‘n Sort” won the national title in the SourceAmerica Design Challenge. The program was also named a 2016 Superstar in Education award winner from the Delaware Chamber of Commerce and Partnership Inc.

Christiana Care partnered for Project SEARCH with Red Clay Consolidated School District, the Delaware Department of Education, the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, Community Integrated Services and Autism Delaware, POW&R.

The departments participating as work sites were: the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute, Clinical Engineering, Environmental Services, Facilities Maintenance, Food and Nutrition, iLEAD, Material Distribution and Logistics, Operating Room, Patient Escort, Patient Guide, Pharmacy, Prep and Holding, Property Management, Sterile Processing and Surgical Material Distribution.