MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital held its second annual “Project SEARCH” graduation at the WVU Heart and Vascular Institute on Wednesday morning.

Project SEARCH is a program that secures competitive employment for students with disabilities. This program was originally established in 1996 at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Colleen Sybert, WVU Medicine VP of Human Resources and Project SEARCH executive sponsor, brought the program to WVU Medicine. This is the first host site in West Virginia.

This year’s graduating class consisted of five students. Four of these five students graduated high school last year, but Garrett Neel was finishing up high school while doing the internship. The students are:

  • Benjamin Chicchi, who graduated from University High School in 2021. His rotations included Friends Gift Shop, Radiology, and Pharmacy.
  • Garritt Neel, who is graduating from Grafton High School. His rotations included Facilities Management, Rosenbaum Family House, and Security.
  • Julianna (Jules) Heldreth, who graduated from East Fairmont High School in 2021. Her rotations included Child Life and Bright Horizons Child Development Center (CDC).
  • Justin Michael, who graduated from North Marion High School in 2021. His rotations were Radiology, Nutrition Services, and Friends Gift Shop.
  • Lane Fox, who graduated from East Fairmont High School in 2021. His rotations were Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, Friends Gift Shop, and Central Transport.

These students served a total of 15 departments while rotating through hospitals, and completed over 3,800 interning hours. Not only did they complete rotations, but some students have finished their OSHA and CPR training, learned how to make resumes and write cover letters, and so much more.

When talking about the interns, Kimberly Hartsell, Director of Volunteer Services and Friends Gift Shop, as well as Project SEARCH’s Business Liaison, said, “we learn from the interns just as much as they learn from us. I think it makes them feel great when they can walk through the halls and talk to you, and know your name, and feel comfortable here as an employee, because they’re working as employees during their rotations.” This opportunity also gives employers a chance to get to know their work ethic and personalities.

Staff that worked alongside the students presented them individually with their graduation certificates. And Amy Cook, the Bright Horizon Child Development Center Director, received the Mentor of the Year award.

Two of the five interns have already accepted positions at different centers. Julianna Heldreth was offered a position after her second rotation and is working with the Bright Horizons Child Development Center. Garritt Neel will be applying for full-time work once he turns 18, graduates high school, and gets his driver’s license. Justin Michael will be starting in the Nutrition Department at Fairmont Medical Center this summer. Ben will transition into waiver services at PACE deliveries and will continue looking for a job after completion of the program.

Wednesday’s ceremony included guest speakers Michael Grace, President of WVU Hospitals, and Clayton Burch, WV Department of Education State Superintendent of Schools and updates on previous graduates. Awards were also given to Amy Cook, the Bright Horizon Child Development Center Director, for Mentor of the Year and the Facilities Management department for Department of the Year.

Next year, there will be a total of ten new students joining Project SEARCH’s intern class, which will be the largest class it has had to date.