For the last few years, Rio Rancho Public Schools has been involved with a program out of Cincinnati called Project Search.
Project Search is a business-led, one-year unpaid internship program for students with intellectual/developmental disabilities at the host work-site, Presbyterian Rust Medical Center, according to RRPS information. Students ages 18-21 enrolled in the district’s Special Services are eligible to apply in their last year of school, if they have completed their graduation requirements.
It began at RMC in 2016 and normally consists of three 10-week rotations, allowing students to build their skills for seeking employment after graduation.
Interns also spend an hour each day in a classroom environment with RRPS teacher Erika Black, RRPS educational assistant/skills trainer Sandra Cartwright and Adelante job coach/skills trainer Emily Deater, where they focus on employability skills curriculum.
In 2020, the Search team received the National Project Search “Transformative Collaboration” spotlight award for its successful collaboration to advance employment opportunities for people with disabilities.
The key players with RRPS are RMC, community rehabilitation provider Adelante Development Center Inc., New Mexico Division of Vocational Rehabilitation’s Rio Rancho office, the state Department of Health Developmental Disabilities Services Division and the University of New Mexico Center for Development and Disability.

What they learn
The curriculum includes:
• Functional academic skills to acquire basic reading, writing and math skills to perform relevant daily routines.
• Employability skills to acquire social skills that employers want their employees to have, including the ability to get along with co-workers, work productively and efficiently in a group such as having appropriate conversations, give and receive feedback, follow instructions, be on time, make decisions, learn the corporate culture and set goals.
• Job-development skills to effectively organize and carry out employment searches, including career exploration, résumé development, completing applications and developing interview skills.
• Independent daily living skills to assist the student in making a successful transition to adult life, which often includes proper hygiene and grooming, nutrition, exercise, arranging transportation and money management and budgeting.
“As the director of Special Education for Rio Rancho Public Schools, I am very proud of the Project SEARCH Program, which allows students with intellectual/developmental disabilities, who are in their final year of high school, an opportunity to learn marketable job skills and prepare for success in a competitive integrated employment setting,” said Theresa Griffin-Golden.
“Over the course of a school year, it is amazing to see the growth that occurs in each individual student; what impresses me most is observing firsthand the students’ growth in their communication skills and their confidence.”

James Preston’s story

James Preston

Cleveland High alum James Preston is a graduate of the 2017-18 Project Search cohort and a three-year, full-time employee of Presbyterian Rust Medical Center.
Among his RMC rotations was with the Patient Transport Department and, due to how well he did in that area, RMC offered him employment prior to the end of his internship. Thus, he met the employment objective of Project Search earlier than scheduled, becoming an RMC employee on March 26, 2018, back with the Patient Transport team — where he still is still today.
A young man who once hoped to be a professional football player, Preston said, “I was very persistent in learning the job and making sure my work was being done to their standards. I looked at more of the attention to detail in doing my job and as a way to further my knowledge in the medical field, not just as way to collect a paycheck.”
As many in education contend, sports played a role in his eventual success off the field — and helped him enjoy his time in the halls of CHS.
“It was pretty good; I played a lot of sports so I feel it was really great,” he said, with his favorite classes being chemistry and other science courses.
Plus, he added, “(CHS football coach Heath) Ridenour helped me to get back into the swing of things, pushed me to be a better person and got me back on track with school, academics and my sports.”
Preston’s advice for future Project Search interns: “Do the best they can. Know that there will be hard times and good times in their internship. They should always stay positive.”
He was encouraged about what his future holds because at RMC, “I was able to show my skills to every department in the hospital and earn a full-time position with patient transport.”
He’s already looking ahead, and says over the next decade, “I see myself going further in the medical field, making more money and going to college — hopefully.”

Marquis Banks’ story

Marquis Banks

Rio Rancho High alum Marquis Banks said, “My favorite part about high school is that I liked seeing my friends and teachers who helped me out a lot. Ms. Chavez helped me the most by giving me extra help and getting caught up in school; she got me interested in Project SEARCH. Ms. Fisher got me involved in Best Buddies.”
He once thought about working as an undercover police officer.
“My favorite classes were Criminal Law, and strength and conditioning,” he said.
Unlike Preston, he’s been unable to begin his job at Rust: “We were unable to work at Rust Medical Center due to COVID,” Banks said. “We are working at the new school … Joe Harris Elementary. We are working in the kitchen, doing janitorial work throughout the school and helping teachers with projects such as making copies, binding books and decorating boards, etc.”
No problem, says Banks: “This program has taught me new skills and helped to improve other skills, such as leadership, and my communication skills, such as working with my peers.”
Despite awaiting pandemic relief to allow him to begin at Rust, he said he has advice for future Project SEARCH candidates: “Be prepared to work hard, and it will help you build for your future career. Most importantly, this program will help you succeed in life and complete your long- and short-term goals.”
Among his goals: “I see myself having a family and want to make sure my children are responsible and disciplined.”
Does it seem like something you’d be interested in?
Project SEARCH is accepting applications for the 2021-22 school year. If interested, apply online on the RRPS website, rrps.net, under Departments and then Special Services.
Some students may not be eligible the first time they apply but may be the second, so they are encouraged to consider this through their transition years.

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Gary Herron | Observer staff writer