HONESDALE—Comprised of seven students from the Wayne Highlands School District (WHSD) and the Wallenpaupack Area School District (WASD), the inaugural class of Project SEARCH interns graduated the program at the Park Street Complex.

After a year of hard work learning important job skills such as time management, frustration management and following directions, Jessica Brooks, Michaela Gregory, Zachary Potter, Dylan Rieman (WHSD), and Nicholas Litz (WASD) took to the stage with smiles spread wide across their faces as they received a certificate of completion.

Brooks, Gregory and Litz also received their diplomas Thursday night, and Litz was rewarded for his athletic prowess with a letter in track and field.

Potter and Rieman will receive theirs along with their high school classmates at Honesdale's upcoming graduation next Saturday.

Wallenpaupack student interns Peter Bambina and Chase Koelln were unable to make it to the ceremony and will receive their awards and recognition at a later time.

Through Project SEARCH, the seven interns worked in the cafeteria, kitchen, print shop, central supply, information desk and housekeeping staff at Wayne Memorial Hospital (WMH).

Addressing the graduates, WMH CEO David Hoff stated, “Today at graduation, we are very proud to say that our student interns, Chase, Dylan, Jessica Michaela, Nick, Peter and Zack did a masterful job adapting to the challenges that we threw at them every day at Wayne Memorial Hospital.”

He added, “From our entire team of hospital employees, but especially your preceptors, we say congratulations and we wish you all the great success in the future.”

Having completed the program, their next steps are into the wide world of competitive job placement where they can use the skills they learned to earn a living.

Reflecting on the program, Gregory relayed, “I guess you could say it was a little hard for me,” but ultimately, “I learned a lot.”

She noted helping her through it were friends and family, and “everybody that pushed me through the door and told me I'm going to do good.”

She advised other to always listen to their parents' advice, “It's the truth, they're gonna tell you this is what they want and you should just listen...because you will always succeed in what you're going to do.”

Now graduated, she plans to look after her horses and try to find employment with WMH.

Praising the program, Michelle Brooks, Jessica's mother, stated her daughter “...absolutely enjoyed it and I think she got a lot out of it. She wishes she could stay and do it another year.”

Fond of the companions she found at WMH, Jessica Brooks plans to seek full-time employment there now that she has completed her internship.

Similarly, Janine Litz, Nicholas' mother, noted Project SEARCH was “a wonderful opportunity” for her son. “He came a long way.”

As described by WASD Assistant Director of Special Education, Dan Nalesnik, Litz is an extraordinarily dedicated worker, dedicated to his family, and a bit of a jokester who hopes to find employment with some component of physical labor.

Looking back fondly on how far the students have come in the last year Project SEARCH Instructor, Leslie Gunuskey stated, “The growth that we've see in all seven of them...is immense. It's amazing, from day one where we started to where we are today, how much they've grown.”

Similarly, Project SEARCH Skills Trainer, James Giacobbe, a vocational rehabilitation specialist with Living Unlimited stated, “It's overall a very positive experience.”

A year in the making

Project SEARCH is an educational, skill-instruction program which helps students with developmental disabilities acquire needed job skills through a three-part internship at WMH their senior year of high school.

Kicked off last May, the project was made possible through the concerted efforts of Wayne Highlands, Wallenpaupack Area, and Western Wayne school districts, Wayne Memorial Hospital, Wayne County's Office of Behavioral and Developmental Programs and Early Intervention, Living Unlimited and the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) in the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

Speaking on behalf of the school districts at Thursday's graduation, WHSD Superintendent Gregory Frigoletto explained when the districts first looked at the program “...We recognized that it wouldn't just be good for kids, we realized it would actually be great for kids.”

Melissa Regenski, Transition Coordinator at WASD explained, at the start of the program “a lot of the students didn't really understand employability skills, but once they got into the hospital and started to see all the different jobs, they just kind of lit up.”

The variety of positions helped them find their employment interests and disinterests, she added.

Pat Blaskiewicz,WHSD Assistant Director of Special Education and Project SEARCH Administrator likewise averred the program's first year was “Amazing. I don't think we could have asked for a better first year.”

Blaskiewicz explained the program is set to train a new class of nine student interns in the upcoming year.

“We're very fortunate,” he added. “We work with Western Wayne and Wallenpaupack, and we kind of have a good little group together. And we couldn't have found a better host site. Wayne Memorial's been super accommodating.”

Noting the mission of OVR is “...to help people with disabilities maintain competitive, integrative employment in the community,” Trish Doherty, a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor for OVR stated, “During the first year, it's been a bumpy ride, but it's been a lot of fun. It's been great to see how much the kids have grown over the last few months. We're really proud of them.”