They may have intellectual or developmental disabilities, but that doesn’t mean that the former high school students taking part in a TSYS intern program can’t learn new things and dream big just like anyone else.
“I want to be a veterinarian,” exclaimed Nick Brundidge from Shaw High during a recent visit to the TSYS North Center card production facility in Columbus. Another has hopes of being a doctor, one wants to join the U.S. Army, and a third is looking forward to one day having a wife, kids, house and car.
They all are part of a national program called Project SEARCH that was launched in 1996 with the goal of helping young people with disabilities learn meaningful skills that they can use both in life and the workforce. The ultimate goal is for graduates to land a good-paying job with a solid company such as TSYS, which currently is the only local participant in the program.
“These children, or interns, come out of a self-contained classroom — they were escorted and chaperoned and protected their whole 13 years of school,” said Loretta Fuller, a Muscogee County School District special education teacher who also is an instructor in the program. “Then they come out here and we teach them in nine months how to be responsible for themselves.”
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This is the second class to take part in the internship training at TSYS, with the first group graduating last spring at the company’s corporate headquarters downtown. There were five graduates then, with eight former students participating in the current class that will include three 10-week sessions leading to their own graduation next May.
Pino Wells Davis is the TSYS business liaison working with Project SEARCH, which also involves Easter Seals West Georgia and the Georgia Vocational Rehabilitation Agency. Thus far, the credit-card and payment processor is the only host-site participant in the Columbus area and one of 21 Georgia employers taking part in program. There are about 500 nationwide.
“I think to whom much is given much is required, and TSYS is truly a blessed company,” Davis responded when asked why TSYS is involved in the effort. “We have so many wonderful resources and great team members who are always looking for an opportunity to give back to others, especially within the communities in which we live. And this is such a brilliant opportunity for us.”
Nationally, 33 percent of graduates are hired by the host site, with the remaining 67 percent taking a job with another employer in their community. Of those who made it through the program earlier this year, three are now manual operators in the mailroom area at the TSYS card production and statement facility off Moon Road. Another is with a third-party vendor, Southern Management.
Cynthia Rodriguez is among those now fully employed with the technology company, working with machinery that sorts credit-card statements bound for customers throughout the U.S.
“It was pretty hard at first, because I didn’t know how to do it very well,” she said of her work, which she enjoys because of the interaction she has with colleagues. Asked what she would be doing if not for the program, Rodriguez said she likely would be looking for a job somewhere, probably with Walmart or something similar.
Fuller said those selected for Project SEARCH go through a process which includes a referral from their school or family members or a vocational rehabilitation counselor. There are interviews and hands-on assessments for the opportunity to learn under a certified instructor and eventually jump into on-the-job training at a workplace for four hours or so each weekday.
“We take children that are moderately disabled. We don’t take the higher functioning ones,” she said. “We get the children who need the most assistance to get a job.”
Rayshun Grant, who came from Kendrick High School, is one of the current crop of intern participants. He ticked off the things he already is learning in the program. They include basics such as following the rules and wearing appropriate attire, but also picking up skills such as the use of Microsoft PowerPoint and Publisher, and creating a Google email account.
“We learn how to work together, respect each other and how to get along,” he said. “We need to learn how to take good care of ourselves, because we’re not children anymore, we’re adults. Project SEARCH is a place that can help you be more independent, and how to take full responsibility for ourself.”
Working with and keeping an eye on Grant and others in the program is TSYS employee and mentor Jimmie Walker, himself a manual operator in the mailroom. Duties include sorting and processing mail, as well as delivering and picking up packages. Walker noted his own grandson is autistic, which means he wants the program to be around for him when it’s time to get ready for a job.
“I enjoy doing it, and teaching young folks things other than a job,” Walker said. “We talk about the workplace, how you dress, how you interview. We talk about hygiene. We talk about eating. We talk about home life, because if you’ve got a messed-up home life, you’re not going to be thinking about work and being focused.”
Davis said part of the beauty of the program is the interns learn skills some people without disabilities can take for granted, such as being punctual and in the right place at the proper moment. They’re taught responsibility and the need to stay focused on the job, which in the case of the TSYS mailroom can mean processing millions upon millions of credit cards and statements each year.
“You can see that they have rather serious jobs,” she said. “It’s not just busywork, and that’s what we’re committed to ... Their day-to-day jobs are meaningful jobs here that we need to have done at TSYS.”
Taking part in a tour last week at the TSYS facility was Georgia Rep. Carolyn Hugley of Columbus, who was first elected in 1992 to her district, which includes southeast Muscogee County. She called the program fabulous.
“It’s wonderful for the young people to have the opportunity to build on the skills that they’ve learned in high school, and come here and make the transition from high school to work and setting goals and being part of a team,” she said.
Those in the current Project SEARCH class are Deshunte Banks of Carver High, Nick Brundidge of Shaw High, Rashaan Davis of Northside High, Darrius Elias of Carver High, Tionna Evans of Carver/Shaw High, Reuben Stephen of Spencer High and Sam Thomas of Northside High.
Aside from Rodriguez, the first class graduates now working at TSYS are Anthony McCommons and Kiara Willis, while Zach Motycka is employed with Southern Management.