Project SEARCH: Empowering People With Disabilities

A true champion for her son Jason, Cathy French believes Project SEARCH offered her son the skills he needed to land an employment opportunity. (Photo by Stephanie Faughnan)

  OCEAN COUNTY  – For Jason French, 20, and his mom, Cathy, his job at Barnegat Rehabilitation and Nursing Center isn’t just any job – it’s a symbol of triumph. Jason, who lives in Stafford Township, isn’t your typical kitchen staffer. He’s a young man on the autism spectrum, and his journey to employment shines a light on the power of determination and support.

  While Jason had prior experience washing dishes at Waretown’s Breakers restaurant and a summer stint at Compassionate Cafe, Cathy knew he deserved more. She envisioned a role that would utilize his skills and foster a sense of independence and self-satisfaction.

  A true champion for her son, Cathy knew she had to find the right fit for Jason. He’d always loved being in the kitchen, and Cathy wanted him to have a job that somewhat challenged him and made him feel like a contributing member of a team.

  Cathy’s unwavering dedication led them to a program specifically designed to help individuals with special needs like Jason enter the workforce. The program provided Jason with the necessary training and support, preparing him for the realities of a fast-paced work environment.

Project SEARCH provides training and opportunities for employment for people with challenges. (Photo by Stephanie Faughnan)

  “Before I came across Project SEARCH, I was already thinking outside the box,” shared Cathy. “Ocean County Vo Tech has a half-day program for special needs, which means that it’s only two hours. I reached out to his case manager (at Southern Regional High School), told her I’d found this program, and asked if she’d come on a tour with me.”

  The case manager told Cathy she was unavailable, leaving her feeling deflated and assuming they were shutting down the concept without even considering it.

  But Cathy refused to give up. Undeterred, Cathy learned more about Project SEARCH, a program specifically designed to help individuals with disabilities transition into meaningful employment. Excited about her findings, she reported back to the case manager, who finally agreed to present the proposition to her supervisor.

  That decision proved life-changing. Jason enrolled in Project SEARCH, hosted at Monmouth Medical Center, the program’s first Jersey Shore home.

About Project SEARCH

  Project SEARCH is a 10-month transition-to-work initiative that integrates real-world work experience with employability and independent living skills training. Now an international program that originated in Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in Ohio, the program aims to support high school students and young adults with disabilities in successfully transitioning to adult life.

  Cathy vividly recalls her initial encounter with Phillip Duck, the Director of Employability at the Family Resource Association, Inc.(FRA). He spearheaded the Project SEARCH program, which has been operating at Monmouth Medical for five years.

  Currently, Duck is in the process of introducing Project SEARCH to Community Medical Center, with classes starting this September. (Informational sessions about the Ocean County program will be held on February 28 and March 7. More details are available by contacting Duck via email at

  “Phil was very warm and welcoming and said a lot of great things,” Cathy said. “He was just as wonderful when I reached out to him for a letter of recommendation the last week of the program. He provided the nicest letter of recommendation and kept saying it’s a village and we were part of his village.”

Toms River resident Ken Stauffer visited the current intern class with his book and Bear, to provide pet therapy. (Photo courtesy Ken Stauffer)

  Project SEARCH originally focused on helping young adults with special needs aged 18-21 with sending school districts providing funding to cover their participation. However, the program’s reach also includes adults who can leverage their Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD) budgets to join.

  “As part of the Project Service model, we have a job developer who works with our program,” shared Duck. “When we go back, 80 percent of people with disabilities are not part of the workplace. Clearly, what was being done to help people with disabilities find employment wasn’t working.”

  “When we started the Employability Division at FRA, we decided to figure out different ways to do it,” Duck continued. “One of the things we found out about Project SEARCH is that it has led to at least a 70 percent efficacy – and that’s just unheard of.”

  At last year’s Project SEARCH national awards program, the class from Monmouth Medical Center earned the distinction of placing nearly 90 percent of its graduates in employment.

  By way of example of how the program works to match an individual’s passions and skill sets to suitable employment opportunities, Duck supplied the details of what he called the “beekeeper story.”

Michael Doherty, Project SEARCH Peer Mentor counsels one of the interns assigned to cardiac care. (Photo by Stephanie Faughnan)

  The dream of steady employment seemed unreachable for one young man in Pennsylvania. Despite securing several jobs, including one that involved cleaning tasks in the cafeteria, he consistently hit roadblocks. He’d perform well until encountering specific triggers like entering the garbage area.

  Where other agencies had focused on pushing the young man back into the same frustrating situations, the Project SEARCH team refused to give up. Instead, they chose to delve deeper, asking questions and seeking a different approach.

  “They discovered he wasn’t just stopping because he didn’t want to work or he was just willy nilly just standing there,” shared Duck. “He was fascinated by the bees that were flying around the garbage and knew everything there was to know about them. So – Project SEARCH helped him become a beekeeper, and he’s now happy in his job.”

Visiting Project SEARCH

  To get a broader understanding of Project SEARCH, our reporter visited Monmouth Medical Center to visit this year’s class and learn about them and their instructors.

  Participants in the program are referred to as interns and rotate through various roles within the hospital as part of their training. They convene in a classroom setting, which acts as their hub throughout the ten-month program. The instructors guiding them are deeply committed to facilitating their transition to appropriate employment and honing their soft skills.

  George Sangiovanni, the job developer for Project SEARCH, is typically present onsite one or two days each week. He plays a vital role in teaching the interns employability skills, aiding in resume building, fostering networking abilities, and refining interview techniques.

  “When I’m onsite, the other part of my job is to observe the interns when they’re working in the different departments,” said Sangiovanni. “To assess what their strengths or weaknesses are and address them.”

  As it gets closer to graduation, Sangiovanni also helps in the process of looking for long-term job opportunities.

Members of the current Project SEARCH intern class at Monmouth Medical Center. (Photo by Stephanie Faughnan)

  One of the program’s 2020 graduates didn’t have to search far to land a job. Michael Doherty, 20, was hired to take on the Project SEARCH Peer Mentor role and was beaming with pride about his position.

  “I went through the program and loved every second of it,” Doherty shared. “When I graduated from the program, Phil offered me this job, which I love. I look forward to coming in and helping in terms of making a positive difference in lives.”

  As an added accomplishment, Doherty had the opportunity to accompany Duck to the Project SEARCH National Conference in Baltimore to give a presentation about his position, hoping to encourage others to create mirrored positions.

  Among the others involved in mentoring Project SEARCH interns is Marisa Schiavelli, a skills trainer who works in the training department to teach the interns their jobs, whatever internship they’re in, adapting and modifying jobs as necessary to figure out what works for them.

  “I’ve been a part of FRA for 26 years as my son has Down syndrome,” said Schiavelli. “And my son went through Project SEARCH two years ago. I’m a registered nurse, and I made a career change to come here. I know what I want for my son and thought I could give back and do what I want as a parent – and help other parents and help other young adults with disabilities.”

  These individuals represent just a general overview of the Project SEARCH team at Monmouth Medical Center – all of whom appear extremely committed to making a difference.

One of the interns has a job changing liquid hand sanitizer dispensers. (Photo by Stephanie Faughnan)

  Interns rotate through a variety of roles throughout the hospital – and don’t just focus on their assignments. They’re helped with controlling their emotions, particularly in stressful situations. Interns also learn the importance of staying on task and doing their best jobs.

  While one intern might be assigned to chat with patients in cardiac rehab, another might be charged with folding scrubs and filling carts with supplies. One of the interns proudly displayed skills in changing liquid hand sanitizer dispensers.

  When Toms River resident Ken Stauffer, a local entrepreneur who does workshops all over the world, learned of Project SEARCH, he decided to help promote bringing the success of the Monmouth County program to Ocean County.

  “My goal is to just to make the world a better place,” summed up Stauffer. “And, in the process, I also enjoy doing pet therapy at the hospital.”

  Stauffer said that his cockapoo not only enjoys visiting the hospital interns – but also the patients and medical staff. “Bear” plays the star role in a 2021 book entitled “Bear Learns to Play Alone” and will also be featured in a new book coming out next month called “Bear Runs for Office.”

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Stephanie A. Faughnan is an award-winning journalist associated with Micromedia Publications/Jersey Shore Online and the director of Writefully Inspired. Recognized with two Excellence in Journalism awards by the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists, Stephanie's passion lies in using the power of words to effect positive change. Her achievements include a first-place award in the Best News Series Print category for the impactful piece, "The Plight Of Residents Displaced By Government Land Purchase," and a second-place honor for the Best Arts and Entertainment Coverage category, specifically for "Albert Music Hall Delivers Exciting Line-Up For 25th Anniversary Show." Stephanie can be contacted by email at