Walking into the Project SEARCH commencement ceremony June 2, the energy and excitement was palpable as graduates talked to each other and their families in tones filled with the hope found in uncovering a life filled with choice and possibility.

As the ceremony got underway, graduates and parents alike began to wipe tears away as they realized the immensity of what had been accomplished in nine months time.

“When I first came to Project SEARCH, I was young and had very little experience with jobs,” Ja’von Hill said as he addressed the audience of parents, friends, community supporters and coworkers. “But thanks to Anne Long, Mark Klota and Katelyn Andrysiak they gave me and my classmates knowledge and a chance to learn about jobs and managing a career . . . I gained confidence and partnership in my classmates. I came here with no experience but I’m leaving with more than I ever had.”

Each graduate spoke of the experience they gained during their time with Project SEARCH, sharing what rotations they participated in and thanking their parents and teachers for providing support each step of the way. When Aaliyah Miles gave her speech, she locked eyes with her family and thanked them genuinely. As she took her seat for the next graduate to speak, she shed tears of gratitude with her family.

Two students, James Dincolo and Brandon Hurt, shared life lessons learned during their time working with Project SEARCH. Brandon read a list of humorous rules for using the computer, while James spoke of faith, family and pursuing dreams.

James’ mom, Leann Dincolo, said James’ speech was a complete surprise to her. He told her she would have to wait until the ceremony to hear it. “So I thought, ‘I better bring some tissues.’ And I needed them.”

Initially, James was hesitant to participate in Project SEARCH, and he was very nervous before it began. “It turned out so well,” Leann said. “I feel he’s more prepared to get a real job . . . It’s been an incredible support system – super organized – and the instructors really care about each individual student. They assess their skills and place them in jobs that are right for them.”

While the job training and skill building has been very helpful for James, Leann felt the best part of the experience was the social interaction. James has had difficulty spending time with his peers in the past, but this class has been different. “The friendships they’ve made this year have been really stretching,” Leann reflected. “That aspect has actually been more important for us.”

Molly Schmitt’s mom, Barb, also felt the social aspect made a difference for Molly. However, she has been most excited to see Molly prepare to work. Molly’s siblings all have jobs and both her parents go to work each day. She has been watching this and wanting to do the same for a long time. For the Schmitt family, Project SEARCH was the answer to this deep set desire. Now that the program has ended, they are hopeful she will begin doing custodial work for a local company soon.
“She wants to work,” Barb said. “[Project SEARCH] is what was giving her a sense of purpose every day. We didn’t even have to get her up in the morning anymore. She’d hear us all getting up and would wake up and get ready too.”

For all but two students who have already found jobs, the job search process is just beginning. Project SEARCH graduates from previous years spoke to the class at graduation and shared their own job search experiences.

Sarah Holland told the group of how she left graduation last year to go straight to an interview with Tanglewood Trace. She showed them a video resume on her iPad and was hired on the spot. She encouraged the graduates that big things were waiting for them.

Jalen Lax-Willis spoke of his work at Kroger and how after just one year’s time, his manager said he is one of the top employees in the store.

The graduates listened closely as they too dreamed of landing that first job. As the graduates move into the search process, ADEC will be alongside them, providing placement services, coaching and follow-along.

At the beginning of the ceremony, Anne Long, their classroom instructor who works for the South Bend Community School Corporation, offered this advice for facing the future, “You have become a better person, a better friend, a better worker. Always remember – treat others the way you’d like to be treated. That will take you far in life.”