Savannah Garner grins when she talks about working at Chicken Salad Chick, giving customers their food and telling them, “Have a blessed day!”

Less than a month on the job, she already has been recognized for outstanding customer service.

“Customers love her to death,” said manager Stephen Everette, adding that she’s one of the hardest-working employees.

Madeline Newsom also loves her new job in the Maryville College dining hall. “I enjoy working with all the co-workers,” she said. “I love the Metz cafe.”

Enthusiasm for jobs and co-workers was echoed by their Project SEARCH classmates, Maranda Massengale, who works in the Heritage High School cafeteria, and Cody Garrett and Jessie Cramer at Lowe’s Home Improvement.

The five students from Heritage and William Blount high schools are the most recent graduates of Blount County Schools’ Project SEARCH program, which helps transition students with disabilities into competitive employment.

Each student was recognized during a Tuesday ceremony at East Maryville Baptist Church, with instructor Tammy Hearon commenting on their attributes, such as Garrett’s big heart, Massengale’s willingness to always help others and Cramer’s friendly, funny personality, including how he likes to end phone calls with an “Alrighty then.”

“It’s overwhelming as an educator to see them grow,” she said after the ceremony.

Full employment

While nationwide surveys have found only about 15% of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are employed, this is the fourth year Project SEARCH has reached a 100% employment rate for graduates.

Project SEARCH combines classroom instruction on topics such as budgeting, hygiene and communication with workplace internships across the Maryville College campus in food service, housekeeping and office work.

Hearon said she always starts classes by having students mention a couple of things they can do to help build their confidence.

She ends by telling them, “Let’s go to work, kids!”

The program does more than prepare the students for jobs. “Project SEARCH also prepares these young people for lives of citizenship,” said Bruce Guillaume, director of the Mountain Challenge program at Maryville College, one of the internship sites.

Vocational Rehabilitation Services and The Access Program, which also serve people with disabilities, are supporters of Project SEARCH, along with Blount County Schools, the college and local employers.

Among the 22 previous graduates, two have moved and the remaining 20 all are still working at least 20 hours a week for pay, according to Amanda Vance, BCS supervisor of special education.

Two were working at the reception following the Project SEARCH ceremony. Cole Taylor usually works in the cafeteria at Union Grove Elementary, and Brittany Campbell at Carpenters Middle School.

“I love my job,” Taylor said Tuesday.

While Campbell’s mother initially was hesitant about her daughter enrolling in a program that would take the girl out of her usual comfort zone, Donna Campbell said, “It is a blessing.”

In all, 14 Project SEARCH grads are working for BCS cafeterias. “We hire who we train,” said Karen Helton, school nutrition coordinator.

“They are top-notch employees,” she said. “Their work ethic is unbelievable.”

James Dulin, general manager of Metz Culinary Management, Maryville College’s food service provider, is another fan of the program.

“They all work very hard,” he said. “I love being part of Project SEARCH.”

A member of the program’s Business Advisory Committee, he encourages employers to take the time to sit and talk with the graduates, to see how well they fit in the workplace.

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