Project SEARCH: What It Does, Who It’s For, Why It’s Important

/ October 5, 2018

I asked two of my friends to write about an internship program that has had great success in helping people with disabilities find and keep jobs. Often these are jobs with good pay and a significant number of hours per week. One friend explains the Project SEARCH program, and one explains how Project SEARCH has helped her son gain needed skills.

About the Author

Janet Shouse smiling

Janet Shouse is a parent of a young adult with autism, and she is passionate about inclusion, employment of people with disabilities, medical issues related to developmental disabilities, supports and services, public policy, legislative initiatives, advocacy, and the intersection of faith and disability. She wears many hats at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, including one as a disability employment specialist for TennesseeWorks.

Our hope is that this weekly blog will offer information you want to know, so if you have a question you want answered about employment for people with disabilities or other mysteries of the world of work, please email me at

What is Project SEARCH?

Pam Hollingsworth, the co-director of Employment Services for Progress Inc., which is a partner in three Middle Tennessee Project SEARCH programs, provided the following information. Project SEARCH was developed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 1996 with the aim of preparing young people with significant disabilities for success in integrated, competitive employment. Since then, the Project SEARCH program has grown to more than 500 program sites internationally. Project SEARCH is a partnership program with Vocational Rehabilitation, a Community Rehabilitation Provider and the host business site.  Many Project SEARCH programs also partner with a local public school system, and interns participate during their last year of high school.  (The list below has school programs in bold.)

Interns are chosen each year to participate in the nine-month training program that offers on-site training for at least three jobs/tasks that the host business site completes each day.  Once the program nears its end, the provider agency seeks employment opportunities for each graduate using the skills they have learned.

The outcome for any Project SEARCH program is employment.  The 2017-18 year interns for all programs are already 79% employed, making Project SEARCH one of the best, if not the best, training/employment program in the country.

Tennessee currently has these Project SEARCH sites:

  • Sheraton Downtown Hotel-Shelby County Schools, Memphis
  • Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital-Shelby County Schools, Memphis
  • Memphis Peabody Hotel-Shelby County Schools, Memphis
  • Methodist North Hospital-Shelby County Schools, Memphis
  • Jackson/Madison County Hospital-Jackson/Madison Schools, Jackson
  • Montgomery County Government Offices-Clarksville/Montgomery County Schools, Clarksville
  • Monroe Carell Jr. Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital-Progress Inc., Nashville
  • Amerigroup-Progress Inc., Nashville
  • Embassy Suites-Metro Nashville Public Schools, Nashville
  • Embassy Suites-Rutherford County Schools, Murfreesboro
  • Blue Cross of TN-Hamilton County Schools, Chattanooga
  • East Tennessee Children’s Hospital-Cerebral Palsy Center, Knoxville
  • University of Tennessee Medical Center-BreakthroughKnoxville
  • Maryville College-Blount County Schools, Maryville
  • Wilderness at the Smokies-Sevier County Schools, Sevierville

Here’s a link to a video of Project SEARCH:

While it’s nice to read about the success of the Project SEARCH program, I think a personal story helps highlight how and whom the program helps. Linda Brown is an information & referral coordinator for Tennessee Disability Pathfinderand the parent of a young adult with autism who recently completed his internship at the Amerigroup-Progress site. I’ve asked Linda to tell us about her son Terrell and his experiences with Project SEARCH.

Could you give a brief description of what your son Terrell is like, what his disability is, what his communicative level is, what kind of education he had?

When we describe Terrell, we describe him as our caregiver.  If he knows that anyone is not feeling well, he will sit with them, make sure they take their medication and say a prayer for them.  He loves to go shopping, so he is extremely comfortable with any mall.  He loves to sit at the mall and have lunch.  He also is an expert at shopping online.  His favorite sites are Amazon, eBay and ToyWiz.  During the summer he traveled to New York and was able to shop at the ToyWiz store, so he was over the moon.

When Terrell was diagnosed, he was given a diagnosis of mild to moderate autism.  He was diagnosed at the age of 3 but was receiving services at 1½ as if he had the diagnosis of autism.  Terrell is able to voice his needs very well.  There are times when he will mumble what he wants, but this is usually when he is tired or a little frustrated.

Terrell began in the public school system, but we decided to homeschool him midway through the 6thgrade.  After entering middle school he regressed, and we enrolled him in a private school for about three years.  Eventually the school closed due to funding.  But it was a positive experience for the time that he was there.  At that point we decided to homeschool.  While attending the homeschool, Terrell was still in touch with the other students.  They were able to attend birthday parties and other events.

How did you hear about the Project SEARCH program at Amerigroup?

We learned about Project SEARCH from Denise Atwater, our supported employment specialist from D & S Community Services, a service provided by the Employment and Community First CHOICES waiver program.

What made the Project SEARCH program attractive to Terrell? 

The ability to leave the house every day and go to work.

Did the fact that the internship was unpaid bother Terrell?

It did bother Terrell that he was not going to get paid.  We told him we would give him an allowance each week.  So we gave him anything from $10 to $20 a week.

What did he enjoy most about the program? 

Terrell liked working with the other interns.  He also enjoyed going out into the community during what is called their intercession weeks. So as to give the interns a break from the office, they had what is called intercession week during each rotation. With Project SEARCH there are three rotations.  The interns will work in three different departments for approximately 12 weeks each. During the intercession week they would have field trips.  For example, they went to the Opryland Hotel, Opry Mills, bowling, eating lunch at a restaurant, etc.  This allowed them to socialize and get to know each other better in a more social setting.

Did you/Terrell encounter any barriers?

Terrell had to learn how to work with a lot of different personalities.  He also had to learn that it is OK to make a mistake.  Things can be corrected.  Terrell is a perfectionist, and he wants each job task to be done perfectly.

What kinds of skills did Terrell acquire?

Terrell learned how to manage his time.  He learned how to have his schedule with him and where he needed to be and at what time.  Another big skill was when he worked in the mailroom.  This brought him out of his comfort zone because he had to learn to finish the task with little assistance.  He wanted someone else to help him and make it easier for him.  He eventually learned that this was his job, and it was expected for him to complete.

Another skill he learned was working with different personalities.  He learned that there may be times when he would need to adjust his approach to people.    

Has Terrell found a job at this point?

He is currently looking for a job that will be a good match for his skills and training.

What would Terrell tell other young people about this program? 

Terrell said that he actually enjoyed the program.  He said that his favorite part was the graduation.  He enjoyed having everyone together and having a big party and getting the gifts.

What would you, as a parent, tell other parents about this program?

Jeff (Linda’s husband and Terrell’s dad) and I would have to tell parents that this is a program that everyone should definitely check into if their loved one wants to work.  The individuals with Project SEARCH were great in working with Terrell and sincerely wanted to see him succeed.  They stayed in touch with us on Terrell’s progress through phone calls, and the employment meetings held with each rotation were extremely helpful. There are three rotations during the internships. Terrell first worked in Electronic Visit Verification (EVV).  He worked on putting tablets together and entering information from the table into a database to keep track of the tablets.  His next rotation was the mailroom.  He would sort the mail for each department, meter the mail and place in the outgoing mailbox.  His last rotation was in the Administrative/Health Care Management department.  Terrell worked on data entry, checking printers for needed supplies, copying, scanning, faxing and emailing documents.

Is there anything else you think would be important for someone to know who is considering either this Project SEARCH or any of the other programs across the state?  

Jeff and I always thought Terrell would not be able to participate in Project SEARCH.  Since this program was five days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., we thought this would be too long of a day for him.  It was an adjustment, but he was able to succeed.  He had such a desire to do what everyone else in the house was doing and that was to get up every day and have somewhere to go.  Project SEARCH gave him a purpose in life.


My thanks to Pam and Linda for sharing information about the Project SEARCH program and how it works to improve the employment landscape for people with disabilities across Tennessee, the nation and the world.

As always, if you have questions, please email me at

Linda Brown is an information & referral coordinator for Tennessee Disability Pathfinder, a statewide information and referral program that includes a multilingual phone/email helpline and website of resources. Linda brings both professional and personal experience to her position as a former administrator with Tennessee Early Intervention System and Vanderbilt University, a parent of a son with a developmental disability, the founder of The Arc Rutherford County, and a Partners in Policymaking graduate. In her role, Linda serves as a liaison for Tennessee Department of Health by connecting individuals with disabilities, their support networks, and public/private agencies to appropriate Department of Health resources and other related social services in Tennessee, providing training presentations, and assisting with maintaining Pathfinder’s online database of resources

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