A Special Place

Fort Sanders Regional and Project SEARCH offer opportunities for students with special needs

The day is overcast, but Darin Darnell wears a bright smile to match his bright orange Powell Panthers t-shirt. He is a proud graduate of Powell High School’s Class of 2022.

Things are going well for Darin. He’s working in registration at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center, thanks to a program called Project SEARCH.

“I transport people,” he says, “and I check them in on the kiosk.” His grandmother, Kim Darnell, marvels at how far Darin has come.

“I never dreamed this little baby that was born at 22 weeks would have come this far,” she says. “When he was born, he weighed 15 ounces, he was 10 inches long, and there was no heartbeat. There was no pulse.”

Darin has some physical and mental challenges, but like many people with disabilities, all he needed was some extra support to reach his potential. Raven Raby, Darin’s special education teacher at Powell High School, is now a Project SEARCH instructor at Fort Sanders Regional and says the program provides just the push students like Darin need.

“I love just holding students with disabilities accountable and really helping them meet their postsecondary goals and dreams. It’s really rewarding,” Raby says. She calls it a full-circle moment.

Carol Burns, registration director at Fort Sanders Regional, says, “Darin has a desire to serve our patients and does so with a great attitude that is contagious. We’re very pleased that Darin joined our department as a full-time employee in May 2023. We’re excited to see Darin learn and grow within our department.”

Project SEARCH is a national transition-to-work program for high school students. The program is available locally through Knox County Schools for students who have disabilities but are fully capable of living productive lives and contributing to society.

The goal for each program participant is competitive employment. To reach that goal, the program provides real-life work experience combined with training in employability and independent-living skills to help young people with significant disabilities make successful transitions to productive adult life.

Darin Darnell
Darin Darnell

Confident and Capable

Tamiko Downs is a mom on a mission to make sure her daughter, Miracle, has the best life possible, even with a disability that makes communication difficult. Project SEARCH has been an important part of that mission.

“She basically has a learning disability,” Tamiko says. “If you see her you won’t know, but speaking to her and talking to her, it’s obvious, and that can present a challenge for a person trying to have some independence.”

Through Project SEARCH, Miracle has been trained in registration, central supply, and the area that has turned out to be her favorite: sterile processing. It’s where surgical instruments are prepared.

“It’s great,” Miracle says. “I like meeting new people.” When asked what else she likes about the work atmosphere at Fort Sanders Regional, she says, “Teamwork.”

“Miracle Downs was a ray of sunshine and a blessing to our team. She loved sterile processing and sterile processing loved her,” says Judy Hyder, interim manager.

“She boxed instrument trays and got the case carts [moved] over for the next day’s surgery cases.” Hyder says Miracle is being hired as an employee and will be an asset to the team and Fort Sanders Regional.

“This program has been the best thing ever. I would recommend it to anybody who has a special-needs child,” Tamiko says. She adds that Miracle “has more confidence in what she’s doing. She’s thriving now.”

Miracle Downs
Miracle Downs

Learning and Growing

The Project SEARCH model involves an extensive period of skills training and career exploration, innovative adaptations, long-term job coaching and continuous feedback from teachers, skills trainers and employers. As a result, at the completion of the training program, student participants can find work in complex and rewarding jobs.

In addition, Project SEARCH can bring about long-term changes in business culture that have far-reaching positive effects on attitudes about hiring people with disabilities and the range of jobs in which they can be successful.

“The program matters because it’s opening doors for individuals with disabilities who typically don’t have the resources or work experience to meet their goals after they graduate from high school,” Raby says.

Tamiko and Kim praise Raby, Project SEARCH and the Fort Sanders Regional staff for offering opportunities to young people who aren’t always given the same options as everyone else.

“I think that’s just the most outstanding thing that they could possibly do,” Kim says, “to give these kids a chance.”

To help a student apply for Project SEARCH or to learn more about the program and its requirements, visit knoxschools.org/Page/24508.

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