Keesler graduates first Project SEARCH class in MS

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Elizabeth Davis
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs

The first four interns from Keesler’s Project SEARCH program graduated May 12.

Project SEARCH places students with intellectual and developmental disabilities in real-world work settings to learn transferable and adaptable job experience, preparing them for life after high school.

“As of today, this is the first class in Mississippi to graduate Project SEARCH from an Air Force Base,” said Kevin Bishop, Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services deputy administrator-workforce. “You are all trailblazers, and we are so proud of how much you’ve accomplished.”

The interns started working at Keesler in August 2022 and rotated through three work sites for 10 weeks each. They learned how to work in medical offices, guest services, housekeeping, maintenance and food preparation.

Along with learning new skills, each of the four interns formed close relationships with their workplace supervisors, mentors, and new peers.

Lt. Col. David Shwalb, 81st Operational Medical Readiness Squadron commander, worked with Project SEARCH intern Andrew in the 81st Medical Group Warrior Clinic.

"Our squadron was incredibly blessed to have Andrew join our team. He filled in and helped with critical tasks that kept the healthcare pipeline flowing quickly for Keesler's active duty patients," said Shwalb. "Having him there also changed the entire culture of the Warrior Clinic. Everyone wanted to create a positive environment for him, and in doing so, they created a more positive and professional environment for the whole flight and our patients.  He absolutely improved unit cohesion and teamwork."

Project SEARCH was a collaborative effort from the very beginning, supported by the base, state agencies, families, and the local school district.

“We would not have been able to have this program without support from Keesler, the Biloxi School District and the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services,” said Rhonda Cochran, Project SEARCH lead instructor. “We’re very grateful for everyone involved who helped make this happen.”

Cochran is excited to expand the program in its next cycle.

“Growth is key to everything,” said Cochran. “We already have 10 applicants for the next cycle and we’d love to expand and place interns in even more units across the base.”