ProjectSEARCH Students

Graduation season is upon us once again and we are thrilled to celebrate the 12 graduates of the ProjectSEARCH class of 2021. 

ProjectSEARCH students outside of the Winchester Medical Center

While students across the country navigated a mix of in-person and virtual schooling, the ProjectSEARCH students were in-person five days a week, completing three rotating internships from September to June at Valley Health’s Winchester Medical Center.

“Students rose to the occasion,” says Joey Dunlap, NW Works’ Employment Services Coordinator who teaches ProjectSEARCH students. “We’ve had excellent participation this year, excellent attendance and the kids were working their internships all through the pandemic.”

Working in a hospital setting during a global pandemic wasn’t easy for the students. Just like other hospital staff, students had to wear face masks and gloves all day and be vigilant about maintaining social distance. Hallways and gift shops that normally were full of visitors and patients’ family members were quieter this year. Even eating lunch was more isolated, as students had to sit at tables by themselves in the classroom and cafeteria in efforts to keep themselves and others safe from the virus. 

Despite the impact COVID-19 made on the hospital and the economy overall, students remained optimistic, according to Dunlap.

“They wanted their sense of normalcy, they wanted to come in and they wanted to work every day,” he said. “We have a remarkable group of students.”

What is also remarkable is the drive the students have had toward finding employment, even before graduation. Eight of the 12 students in the class of 2021 have been offered employment at press time, plus an additional student from the class of 2020. Melody Crossway, the Executive Client Programs Advisor, says although this was a challenging year, the placement rate so far is exceptional. 

“Even with all the barriers in place– of max occupancy in the program, in a healthcare setting, during a pandemic–they never missed a beat,” Crossway said. “The success speaks volumes.” 

The program wouldn’t be possible without the support from partners within the Winchester City Public Schools, Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, Frederick County Public Schools, the Northwestern Community Services Board, and Valley Health. Dunlap says those partnerships provide the opportunities, the support, and the training necessary to help the students prepare for their futures. The interview preparation students undergo with DARS makes a visible impact on the class, Dunlap says.

“You can see the transformation in every single one of them. You see the joy– especially when they get a job […] the first thing they do is they come back into the classroom and tell all the other students and it’s better than Christmas,” he said. “There’s no better feeling in this world for me” 

Overall, the Winchester & Frederick County chapter of ProjectSEARCH has a high success rate, with over 75 percent of last year’s class being employed within a year after graduation. One student is still job hunting, with another choosing to wait until the pandemic ends to begin searching for work. The class of 2019 had even better numbers, with 100 percent of students being employed within a year of graduation. 

Dunlap and Crossway both credit the high placements in part to the attitudes of local businesses. Dunlap says it’s been part of Valley Health Vice President Skip Philip’s vision to have businesses willing to give ProjectSEARCH students a chance.

“It’s about getting the community partners together to hire these amazing young adults and give them a chance,” Dunlap said. “And it’s starting to work, which is fabulous.”

Students who don’t have jobs lined up after graduation will continue to work with Dunlap to apply for jobs, tweak their resumes, and practice for interviews throughout the summer. All the graduates will receive support from NW Works via job coaches who will fade out over time as students become more independent and comfortable in their careers. 

While students are enjoying the last few weeks of their internships, Dunlap is already preparing for next year’s class: twelve more students, ready to jump start their careers. 

“It’s almost overwhelming, but it’s a great overwhelming.”

Students will graduate from the program on Friday June 11, 2021 in a small ceremony with family and staff members.

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