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  • Second Project SEARCH class graduates

    (NOTE: A ceremony was held May 31 to celebrate the people who successfully completed our second Project SEARCH program. Project SEARCH is a partnership between The Resource Center and UPMC Chautauqua, in which people with disabilities go through a nine-month internship at the hospital with a goal of learning skills that will lead to employment.)


    Article by Christopher Blakeslee of The Post-Journal


    Cooking up a batch of tasty food is all in a day’s work for Gavin Johnson, a Project SEARCH intern who, after graduating, has been hired by UPMC Chautauqua as a food technician.

    Johnson was all smiles Friday after obtaining gainful employment at the hospital. Johnson and five of his special needs classmates recently graduated from Project SEARCH, a program offered through The Resource Center. Friday’s graduation was held at UPMC Chautauqua in the hospital’s auditorium after a one-year training and educational program.

    According to projectsearch.us, the non-for-profit organization’s Transition-to-Work program is a business-led, one-year employment preparation program that takes place entirely at the workplace. Total workplace immersion facilitates a seamless combination of classroom instruction, career exploration, and hands-on training through worksite rotations. The program culminates in individualized job development.

    And according to Johnson, the program is reaching its goals.

    “I got hired before I graduated here,” he said. “The program got me ready to work and I found a job I love doing, where I get to help people, and make a difference.”

    Johnson, who has special needs, and his classmates, applied and enrolled in the program which uses a collaborative approach to serving, preparing and getting students ready for gainful employment.

    “We partnered with UPMC – as our host business – to run this program,” said Terri Johnson, the director of employment and community-based services for The Resource Center. “This class worked in the food and nutrition services, environmental services, patient transportation, patient and family concierge and the maintenance and groundskeeping departments.”

    Cecil Miller, UPMC vice president of operations, added during the graduation ceremony his admiration and excitement for what is next in store for the graduates.

    “I’m so very proud of you,” Miller said. “We’re excited to see where you’re going to go next, and what you’re going to do with the new skills you’ve learned.”

    The 2024 graduating class marks the second iteration of Project SEARCH at UPMC. However, the direct impact the students have, and have had, on the direct operations at the hospital is amazing.

    “Our first graduating class we had three individuals, and in this class, we doubled the size,” said Johnson. “People with special needs can be very productive members of the workforce. When we started the program some of the department heads were saying “what are we going to do to keep them (students) busy?’ And now they are saying, “What are we going to do without them?’”

    The Equal Opportunity Employment act of 1972 and the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) have made it a federal law that requires all employers provide reasonable accommodations for those wanting to work; UPMC, The Resource Center and Project Search, have made it their sole mission to focus on those with special needs.

    Statistically speaking, the program is working.

    Based upon the following criteria jobs which offer the following are considered gainful, positive and competitive employment.

    • Competitive employment in an integrated setting (i.e. among co-workers with and without disabilities)
    • Year-round, non-seasonal employment
    • 16 hours/week or more
    • Prevailing wages

    According to projectsearch.us, of the number of students who graduate from the program, 75% become employed and employment opportunities meeting all criteria for competitive employment is around 65 to 70%.

    Pictured are, from left, Faith Baker, Employment Services Administrator, who oversees Project SEARCH; graduate Kyle Keller; Donna Vitale, Project Search Instructor; graduates MacKenzie Smith, Gavin Johnson, Conner LaForest, and Colton Hanson; and Alex Woleen, Project SEARCH Skills Trainer. Missing from the photo is the other graduate, Cruise Hastings.

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