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Special graduates have emotional ceremony

Springfield hospital hosts one-year internships for those with disabilities.

People who need better heart function usually are directed Springfield Regional Medical Center’s second floor.

But at 1 p.m. Friday, it would have been hard to persuade the nearly 100 gathered in Assembly Room A on the hospital’s Garden Level that there was another place in the world that could have done their hearts more good.

They’d just witnessed the graduation ceremony for six students finishing year-long internships at the hospital with SEARCH, a program that teaches students with disabilities skills, habits, attitudes and behaviors needed to hold real-world jobs.

Jeana Sullivan, program coordinator, explained that because its many departments offer so many training possibilities, a hospital is an ideal setting.

But even before she got to that, Sullivan was overcome with emotion.

“I’m proud to be here,” said the special educator assigned to the program by the Springfield Clark County Career Technology Center.

She said that during her first year with the program, she’d watched the graduates who “branched out of their comfort zones” as they moved “from nervous young students who lacked self-confident to very, very competent, secure, hard workers.”

Sullivan thanked all the agencies collaborating to make SEARCH possible: CTC, The Clark County Department of Disabilities, United Rehabilitation Specialists, who provided two job coaches Emily Marsh and James Gray.

Amy Schakat, director of student services and academics at CTC, said “Clark County’s a special place” in having “so many qualified, talented people who care about our students.”

Sullivan underscored the caring when she thanked members of the hospital community for wrapping their arms around the students and program.

“They’ve been gracious, and they’ve been kind, and they’ve opened their hearts,” she said.

The students, ages 19 to 21, played a part in that opening.

Working with Brandon Wilson and Alyson Hawkins “has made me a wiser person,” said Sherman Lewis of the hospital’s environmental staff.

“It feels like one of my grandkids is here graduating,” he added, then addressed the students directly: “You’re very special to me and most of the patients, if not all of them, that you see every day.”

Carrie Richards of the laboratory team, located next to the SEARCH classroom, said the staff has “grown to love each and every one of them” for “the positivity they bring to use every day,” and appreciate the dedication shown by Sullivan and job coaches Marsh and Gray.

Dawn Willis, who heads that department, said she thinks the students excel over others in their commitments “to try, to not give up and to be engaging with the people they come in contact with.”

Agnes Whitten said that on the Tuesdays and Fridays she volunteers at the hospital, student Curtis Lininger “has become my assistant” — an assistant who reminded her she was not doing her job once “because I missed greeting somebody. So I was watched all the time.”

Tanya Frost, who admitted she’d been “so leery” of allowing her daughter, Sierra, to take part in the program, said she now would try to persuade other parents to sign their children up.

“She has grown so much competence and independence,” she said.

Each of the students was called up to receive either their high school diplomas or CTC work passports and make individual statements.

Student Joel Kunce, who works in the coffee shop and whose quest to become an operating room technician will begin at Clark State Community College, took the opportunity to thank his family.

“I was ready to throw in the towel,” he said, “and you didn’t let me.”

Brandon Wilson credited the staff “because I’ve been having trouble writing … and making sentences. But I got helped out from the job coaches, and now I have a job.”

Lininger, who had supervised volunteer Whitten, called it “one of my best days” and said he was looking forward to “getting my job and getting a lot of money I can spend on everything.”

“You’re a rock star, Curtis!” a voice in the crowd replied.

Frost, who has problems talking, used a computer application that read aloud the message she typed in. The message brought smiles to everyone’s face when it said: “P.S. Thank you lab department for hiring me.”

After Jordan Lyons was overcome with emotion, Sullivan read from Lyons’ typed script, as her sister watched via a computer link to Georgia.

Sullivan said five of the six students now have jobs, and another is in interviews “a nano-inch” away.

At program’s end, the Rev. Marcia Garrison chose understatement in her Benediction when she said, “I would suggest that God is pleased.”

She then gently prompted the audience into the Amen it was ready to give.

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