SUMMIT, NJ - The smile on Se'Quince Aiken's face lit up the room.
One of the star students of Project SEARCH told her inspirational story in a prepared speech Monday as the successes of the work-preparation program for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities were highlighted in Overlook Medical Center's Bouras Auditorium.
"This is only the beginning," Aiken said.
The students are learning "hard" and "soft" skills that will help them earn gainful employment after completion of the year-long program, which is being hosted by Overlook Medical Center.
Aiken is one of nine high school interns in the program that began in the fall. The goal is to transition high school students with disabilities into jobs by giving them real hands-on experience as interns.
"I've done the research and I've found that this is an evidenced-based program," Alice Hunnicut, director of NJ's Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services, said. "Seventy-three percent of participants in Project SEARCH move on to competitive gainful employment. The national employment rate is in the low 20s. This program has done incredibly well."
The 20-year-old Aiken, who is wheelchair bound because of cerebral palsy, already has written three books available on Amazon, "Surrender," "Life is a Journey" and "Butterfly." Now she'll be writing about her experience in Project SEARCH with a blog and possibly a diary.
Josh Bornstein, director of special projects for the Union County Educational Services Commission, talks about student Se'Quince Aiken
The students selected to participate in the program had to learn how to commute to the hospital on their own and take classes in the hospital. They each have a jobs coach who they consult with daily and a mentor who helps the students learn the skills necessary to perform assigned duties.
The collaborative Project SEARCH program is supported by Overlook Medical Center and Atlantic Health System; the Union County Educational Services Commission; the New Jersey Division of Rehabilitation Services, the Arc of New Jersey; NJTIP at Rutgers; the Union County Development Board, and the New Jersey Division of Developmental Disabilities.