Project SEARCH co-founder visits students in Spartanburg

This story was published online by on February 13, 2018. It is reprinted here with permission.

The co-founder of a 22-year-old program that helps students with learning disabilities land jobs after graduation came to Spartanburg Medical Center on Tuesday to see firsthand the fruits of her labor.

“The biggest joy is seeing people with disabilities get quality skills and jobs,” said Susan Rutowski of Project SEARCH in Cincinnati, which has grown since 1996 to more than 400 programs in 46 states and five other countries.

Spartanburg Medical Center was the first in South Carolina to use Project SEARCH, having worked in 2014 with Dorman High School. Other partners include the S.C. State Workforce Investment Board and the S.C. Vocational Rehabilitation Department. Last year, Pickens and Anderson counties joined the program.

In just three years at Spartanburg Medical Center, the program has had 23 interns, 21 of whom have landed jobs — 16 of them at the medical center, said Dorman Project SEARCH director Sam Napier.

This year, five students have internships at the hospital, and the goal is to learn interaction, vocational and life skills. After a 10-week internship, many either stay on their job or find work elsewhere. Last year, one student got a job in the kitchen at Summit Hills retirement community in Spartanburg.

On Tuesday, Rutowski met several students who completed internships and have held down jobs at the medical center. She asked each one what they like best about their job.

“You get to make someone’s day special,” said Kwamell Evans, 20, who works in central patient transport — a job that entails retrieving and delivering medical equipment such as wheelchairs and beds.

Evans still lives with his mother, but he is saving money to get his own place and car. He one day wants to become a minister.

“You are ministering everyday,” Rutowski told him.

Evans and Devonte Higgins are both Dorman graduates who have completed an internship and landed full-time jobs at the hospital.

Higgins, 21, works in environmental sciences. He is responsible for collecting and disposing of trash. He lives near Cleveland Park with his mother, but he also hopes to save enough money to live on his own. Until then, he helps out at home paying bills and rent.

Luis Luna, 21, has worked full-time nearly two years in central patient transport. Luna’s job doesn’t require a tie, but he dresses sharp and wears a bow tie because it “looks nicer than a regular tie.”

“I like working together with others,” he said. “It’s always nice when you’re working and saving lives.”

Tyler Smith, 22, has been employed in central patient transport for three years, the longest of any interns who stayed on with full-time jobs. Part of his job is greeting people and just being friendly.

“It’s not about one person, it’s about the team,” he said with humility, when asked why he is so popular. “It’s like a car with one cylinder. It doesn’t work. If it’s got eight cylinders, it works just fine.”