NIH Recognizes Project SEARCH Grads

The 7 Project SEARCH grads pose with their instructors on the Lipsett Amphitheater stage.

Project SEARCH graduates pose with instructors and staff: Meghan Dworschak, instructor; graduate Douglas Morales; Lu Merrick, education partner, Ivymount School; graduate Makala Singleton-Black; Maryann Sofranko, Project SEARCH NIH business lead; graduates Jonathan Feifer and Marina Callear; Nancy Eaby, assistant director, SEEC; graduate Natalie Haynes; D’Vonte Putney, NINDS Project SEARCH team; graduates Conrad Richardson and William Schott; and Te’Keisha Coates, instructor.

Photo: Marleen Van Den Neste

Graduation is often emotional, the culmination of many hours of hard work. It’s especially so for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, who must often work even harder to reach this milestone.

On June 13, seven young adults graduated from Project SEARCH and celebrated with their proud families at a commencement ceremony in Lipsett Amphitheater. The program, hosted by NINDS and supported by the Ivymount School’s Post-High School Program and the local nonprofit SEEC, provides education and career-based training to talented young people who have intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

James Garcia stands on stage, singing into the microphone.

At the commencement program, 2013 Project SEARCH graduate James Garcia performs a song.

Photo: Marleen Van Den Neste

Maryann Sofranko, NINDS deputy executive officer, serves as NIH business lead for the program, providing daily oversight and working to arrange intern rotations with willing mentors across NIH. The graduates complete 3 10-week internships at ICs across NIH to prepare them for competitive employment. Four of the interns already have NIH job offers.

“Project SEARCH exemplifies how a workplace exercises inclusivity and diversity in a way that fosters our understanding about how important differences can be,” said Dr. Maureen Gormley, deputy director for management at NINDS, who brought the program to NIH 9 years ago while serving as chief operating officer at the Clinical Center. 

Gormley reflected on how each year’s Project SEARCH interns brought positivity and collegiality to their office communities.

“It has really made a difference in the friendliness, in the culture of our campus,” said Gormley. Looking at the interns, she commented, “You guys perpetuated that spirit of openness and human kindness, and that’s one of the magical elements, in addition to all your hard work, that you’ve added to our organization.” 

Project SEARCH alumn Zachary Sweet speaks at podium.

At the commencement program, Class of 2017 graduate Zachary Sweet provides inspiration.

Photo: Marleen Van Den Neste

This year’s grads interned at offices in the Clinical Center, NINDS, NCI, NIAMS, NEI, ORS and Eurest Dining Services. Their many duties included working in IT, producing videos, scanning flyers, entering and organizing data and delivering mail. Next year, for the program’s 10th anniversary, the program aims to have at least one worker at every IC.

Class of 2017 graduate Zachary Sweet, who did his internship with NINDS, offered the audience an inspirational message. 

“Look where I am now! I became an FTE a year after graduating from Project SEARCH,” said Sweet, who now works in the institute’s Information Resources Management Branch. “My journey from intern to post-hire required me to stay strong, give it my all, face challenges and overcome obstacles.” 

To the 2019 graduates, Sweet said, “We can work together to prove that having a disability does not mean...we are not worthy of full-time employment.” 

This year, four of the grads are already on their way. NCI selected Makala Singleton-Black and William Schott for provisional employment, said Sandra Thomas, deputy director of NCI’s Office of Workforce Planning and Development, which will employ them. They’ll gain valuable experience during their 2-year post, she said, with the potential for permanent placement. Natalie Haynes was hired by NEI and NINDS has plans to hire Douglas Morales before the end of the summer.  

Keynote speaker Jillian Copeland speaks at podium.

At the commencement program, keynote speaker Jillian Copeland offers advice.

Photo: Marleen Van Den Neste

Keynote speaker Jillian Copeland provided some useful advice for graduates as they begin to navigate the next chapter of their lives. Everyone has fears, she said, from meeting new people to starting a new job. When she’s feeling anxious, she takes a series of breaths and visualizes something positive.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help, Copeland added. Surround yourself with supportive people, she advised, and be an important part of the team by supporting others.“If you have fear, find what works to help you through but don’t let it stop you. Find a way to get through it and push through,” said Copeland, founder and board chair of the Diener School, a local, private kindergarten through grade 6 school for people with learning disabilities. She’s also co-founder of Main Street Connect, a new inclusive residential development that designates a quarter of its apartments to people with disabilities.

“Create a positive environment everywhere you go,” she concluded.

The program ended with a heart-rending performance by 2013 Project SEARCH graduate James Garcia, who now works in ORS. He sang What a Wonderful World