Program gives young adults with disabilities a hand up

Project Search helps to assimilate students into a competitive workforce


It can be unsettling for any student to search for an entry-level job available straight out of high school. For one with a disability, it is even more harrowing.

In fact, in the United States those with disabilities have an employment rate of only 19.1 percent. And that’s 1.2 percent higher than 2020, which was during the peak of COVID-19’s lockdown.

For Renard Perkins that doesn’t seem to be the case.

He is a graduate of Montefiore Medical Center’s Project Search, whose aim is to erase the label of a person with a disability and what they can or cannot do. The program’s goal is to transition such a student’s life into a workspace. With internships in the program, Perkins was able to build a bridge to find employment.

“They helped me to achieve my goals and dreams,” said Perkins, a 2020 alumnus of the program.

The nonprofit is a year-long job readiness program that provides employment training and education with internships for young adults with significant disabilities.

Types of internships that are offered are nutrition, housekeeping, neurosurgery, GI suite intake endoscopy scope room and more. Their website lists a total of 10 internships.

The average day of a Project Search student includes a 50-minute class session in the morning before reporting to their department. Once completed they return to the classroom for an afternoon class.

During class sessions students focus on vocational skills like budgeting and resume writing. Role playing and interviewing is something that students enjoy. There are also other career-focused opportunities.

In traditional programs such as these, the expected task will most likely be janitorial work or managing nutrition.

However, unlike the traditional format, Project Search places students based on what they think best suits them.

“A guy assigned me to come and join Project Search and see how the role fits for me, how the other kids get to know different skills, how to learn different vocabulary words and then help each other and get them a job when they graduate from Project Search,” Perkins said.

Project Search gave him a chance to educate himself and give him hands on experience in the workforce.

In June, 12 students from the Bronx joined Perkins as alumni.

“I helped patients go on the stretcher, I helped nurses and I look for nurses papers (bios) and then put it (in a folder) by alphabetical order,” Perkins said.

Perkins was the guy to see if a patient needed to be discharged while working at the front desk of a gastroenterologist’s office. But he didn’t stop there. He is currently employed in an emergency room in Montefiore on its Wakefield campus gastrointestinal department.

Another student from the class of 2015 who had similar responsibilities to Perkins is an example of the program shows its diversity to the public.

“He was one of the first faces that people saw,” Dana Politis, community director of workforce program at Montefiore, said about that program graduate. “There has always been this focus of what can’t you do, and our focus is what can you do.”

All students come from district 75, which is a partnership Project Search has with the city education department. It provides students with highly instructional support for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Politis leads a department that focuses on training students that are traditionally underrepresented from communities in the Bronx. The team is dedicated to empowering them to become future health care workers.

“I think sometimes students don’t see themselves as part of communities like this, and for them to see leaders that look like them is really important,” Politis said. “I think it’s really important for them to feel a part of this organization.”

Project Search tries not to differentiate their students from other medical interns.  Their uniform is similar to that of their colleagues with nothing identifying them as being part of the program .Interns like Perkins walk the halls with an ID similar to everyone else. 

Students are not excluded from anything in their department or medical center, including holiday parties and meetings.

“We’re all teachers,” Politis said.

Onsite staff includes licensed teachers and a pair of professionals from the school. Job coaches are also available. Some alumni come back to work to Montefiore Medical Center and serve as mentors for the incoming class.

Perkins is not a mentor for the new class, but the program does offer alumni to come back and show students what the possibilities are if you work hard.

“And I think the mentorship part of the program is really important, because they need to see students are now their associates are not students anymore like themselves in the program,” Politis said. “And it’s just the natural chemistry that works, and it’s amazing.”

Perkins told The Riverdale Press that he was extremely nervous on his first day. He was not used to meeting many different people at the same time — especially since he didn’t know anyone there.

Until the second day, he realized this was the best thing that could have ever happened to him. He not only gained employment, he gained friendship and he had no challenges or obstacles along the way.