Doing Different Kinds of Good

South Carolina Hospitals Give Young Adults with Special Needs a Place for a Career

In addition to providing quality healthcare, South Carolina hospitals are also complex workplaces with lots of different tasks and jobs.


It’s the latter aspect which appeals to Project SEARCH, a national school-to-work program for high school-age young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The program looks for host businesses that meet a specific set of criteria that allows students to acquire valuable marketable skills and have a real-life work experience that will allow them to successfully transition into a productive adult life. 


South Carolina hospitals have just begun embracing the program, starting with Spartanburg Medical Center and Palmetto Health Baptist Parkridge. Baptist Easley Hospital and AnMed Health in the Upstate are set to bring in students this coming school year. Project SEARCH has caught some media attention lately thanks to its success and positive impact on the community. SCHA caught up with Sandi Batten, the new statewide Technical Advisor, who spent the past year working on the program at Parkridge, to learn more about the program as well as Arc of the Midland’s new grant that will help it expand throughout the state.  


So tell us about this new grant?


Through the SC Developmental Disabilities Council, the Arc of the Midlands was recently awarded a grant that will enable us to serve as statewide technical advisors for Project SEARCH. The primary tasks of this initiative will be to assist communities with information about Project SEARCH; assist community teams with preparation for training and technical assistance; coordinate statewide meetings and trainings; and provide seed funding for up to three new Project SEARCH programs each grant year. We are so pleased to have the opportunity to assist in the implementation of new Project SEARCH programs across the state.


What makes hospitals such a good fit for Project SEARCH?


Hospitals are the ideal host businesses for Project SEARCH programs for many reasons. A host business should have 600+ employees and a variety of internship locations in order for the students to learn a wide variety of skills. There are so many opportunities in a hospital setting to teach students skills in order to gain employment in complex, systematic jobs. Our student interns will rotate through three different internships that last about 10 weeks each during the school year. We like to vary the internships as much as possible so they gain as many employable skills as possible. Another huge benefit to the interns is the nurturing personalities of the staff in hospitals. Our interns are trained by Project SEARCH instructors and job coaches, but later come to rely on these natural supports as we fade out. We’ve been very blessed in South Carolina to have the opportunity to have programs in hospitals that have not just embraced our students, but treated them as equal team members. Having spent the past year at Palmetto Health Baptist Parkridge, I watched our students begin this program as nervous, shy young adults that lacked confidence, and by graduation blossom into strong, confident, happy young people that act and feel no different than any other person at this hospital. This is due largely in part to how they were taken in, embraced, and treated by the entire staff at Palmetto Health Parkridge. 


There seems to be a big emphasis on immersion in these host businesses. Why?


Total immersion in the workplace is a key component of Project SEARCH. Our student interns work, eat their lunch, attend meetings, all alongside their fellow hospital team members. They’re not just gaining work skills in this program, but also practicing real world and social skills and gaining friendships in an integrated work setting. 


How do these workplaces usually do with that?


The host businesses love our young people! Hospital staff are natural teachers, they really enjoy working with our interns. Also, these young people are providing a valuable service to the hospitals as well. They are performing many tasks that highly paid personnel were previously having to spend their time doing. This enables staff to better focus on patient care. Project SEARCH was actually founded in 1996 when the Director of the Emergency Department at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center was frustrated with finding employees to fill entry level jobs such as stocking supplies. She wondered if people with disabilities could fill these types of jobs, and turned to Great Oaks Career Center and the Hamilton County Board of Developmental Disability Services, and together these organizations launched the first of more than 400 programs across 45 states and four countries. It’s no wonder both of the hospitals that serve as host businesses in South Carolina have hired the majority of the Project SEARCH students that have come through the program in the last two years.


What’s the biggest misconception potential host businesses have before beginning the program?


We really make a point to ensure the host business that they are not expected or obligated to hire our student interns. The host business serves as a training facility for our students to gain marketable, competitive job skills. They will provide space for our students to use as a classroom, or “training room,” where they spend one hour each morning before heading to their internships, learning functional employment and life skills. They also provide a business liaison, typically someone from HR, who will spend about 10% of their time on Project SEARCH. 


How does ARC of the Midlands fit into this?


Melinda Moore, CEO of Arc of the Midlands, had a vision to bring Project SEARCH to the area. Through a grant from the SC Developmental Disabilities Council, Arc of the Midlands partnered with Lexington Richland School District 5, the South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department, and Palmetto Health Baptist Parkridge to implement the second program in our state. We have just concluded our first year, with an outcome of 100% employment for all students who completed the program. As Arc of the Midlands begins our service as Statewide Advisors, we are excited to be a part of this initiative that will enable us to help bring Project SEARCH to many communities across the state. 


For more information about starting a program, you can contact Sandi Batten at