Project SEARCH graduates leave with work experience, memories


Schools across St. Johns County will be wrapping up their school years during May and many graduations will be held to commemorate students heading to the next stage of their life.

One of those graduations will recognize just three students but it will be just as important as all the others.

The graduation will be honoring three students who are completing the Project SEARCH program, which is designed to offer real-life and job skills for young adults with disabilities through an internship at Vicar’s Landing and its campuses.

According to Project SEARCH instructor Laura Davis, the emphasis of the program is to focus on helping the students gain the necessary skills to obtain long-term and competitive paid employment now that their high school time within the district has reached its end.

Project SEARCH is one of two programs in the county that attempt to create skills through internships for students with disabilities, the other called Lifework, which focuses on students who are a little younger and may have a couple of years left before entering the workforce fully.

The typical age for Project SEARCH students is 20 to 21 years old, and the value of the experience gained through the program is bountiful.

“We don’t want this to be the end for them, because it’s not the end for them,” Davis said. “This is just how the road is winding for them. The projections are that they at the time that they finish or will have it within the next three to six months after graduation.”

There have been times when the business they interned for end up hiring them after graduation, but in this case all three interns live in the Fruit Cove area, so finding employment closer to where they live and with less commute will be the goal.

This year’s graduates in Project SEARCH include Caleb Clayton, Zach Bower and Dylan Nicholas.

One of the goals is to make sure that they get immersed in many of the various aspects that make up the day-to-day jobs at a business so that they can discover what type of work fits them.

For Bower, he found a love for working with the kitchen staff at Vicar’s Landing at Oak Bridge and showed a real knack for chopping up vegetables and helping with meal preparation.

“I’ve really enjoyed learning the different knife skills and what to do when you’re in the kitchen,” Bower said.

Meanwhile, Nicholas has been working toward his dream job of working at Dunkin’ Donuts, and one of his tasks has been making sure the coffee counter in the lobby at Vicar’s Landing at Oak Bridge stays stocked and fresh.

“We do all types of assessments to understand where they are currently, but like any 20-year-old, do you really know what you want to do,” Davis said. “That’s the valuable thing with this program, is that they are given the opportunity to explore and be exposed to many things.”

Seeing them realize what aspects of the job they can and find out they love to do proves that the program is working on many levels.

“Those are the things gained outside of even the skills learned, such as confidence and what it means to work on a team and be flexible,” Davis said. “All of which, are things so valuable to being members of a workplace.”

Davis has a staff within the program throughout the school district, but she also thanked the staff at Vicar’s Landing’s campuses and the residents for helping create a supportive and conducive learning environment for the interns.

The graduation ceremony will take place May 23 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Vicar’s Landing at Oak Bridge located at 251 English Oak Lane in Ponte Vedra Beach and it will include a reception following the recognition.