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Video: BOCES Project AIIM Graduates Six Pioneers of Project SEARCH

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L-r: Project AIIM grads Sean Smith, Kerron Casiano, Nelson Guerrero, Jake Koocher and Mark Brailey.

For six young men, their graduation from the Southern  Westchester BOCES Project AIIM program on June 19 was  a day of firsts.

As new graduates, they took their first step into adulthood, and were faced with the prospect of finding their first job and launching a career. But they were well-prepared for doing so because they were also the first graduating class of Project SEARCH, a high school transition program started at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center that gives students with Autism a workplace immersion experience combined with classroom instruction, career exploration and hands-on training through worksite rotations.

Project SEARCH is housed at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in White Plains, which is also the site of the New York Center for Autism and the Developing Brain (CADB). The CABD opens in 2013 under the direction of Dr. Catherine Lord, a leading Autism authority whose specialty is transforming the way Autism spectrum disorders are diagnosed and treated.

Graduates Mark Brailey, Kerron Casiano, Nelson Guerrero, Jake Koocher, Douglas Nunez and Sean Smith were the first BOCES students to participate in the Project SEARCH program, brought to Westchester County in partnership with New York Collaborates for Autism, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the Jewish Community Centers Association and Southern Westchester BOCES.

“This is a program that we decided we wanted to embark on a year ago and we came to New York-Presbyterian, which has been an amazing partner with their new Center for Autism and the Developing Brain,” Ilene Lanier, Executive Director of New York Collaborates for Autism, said in her address to the graduates and their family members. “We also went to Southern Westchester BOCES and are not only delighted to have them as a partner, but were blessed with teachers.”

A Day to Remember

Handsome in their black caps and gowns, the grads had high-fived their way down the aisle of a building on the hospital’s 214-acre wooded campus where the ceremony was held, smiling broadly and shaking hands with proud family members and friends as they applauded and cheered.

“I just want to say that Project SEARCH is probably the best thing to happen in my life,” said graduate Nelson Guerrero, when he was called up to say a few words. “Project SEARCH is probably the best project ever in the whole world and I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for my parents and this program.”

Nelson, along with the other graduates, had gained work experience rotating through the hospital’s kitchen, pharmacy, building services and other departments, and had opportunities to meet new people and learn workplace skills.

The students did so well during their rotations that staff complained good-naturedly when they weren’t able to get a student at their worksite, said Dr. Philip Wilner, the hospital’s Vice President and Medical Director for Behavioral Health.

“Many employees here were clamoring to have the students participate in their rotation, but we had more rotations than students in order to give them an array of opportunities to train in vocational aspects,” he said. “Employees know the performance that the students bring is outstanding. We have watched these students advance and grow and now they’re young men who walk on this campus as if they own the place!”

On the Fast Track to Work

Their workplace training through Project SEARCH puts the grads on the “fast track to finding the job of your dreams,” said Dr. Marsha Gordon, President and CEO of the Business Council of Westchester.

According to a recent study, one in three young adults with Autism have had no paid job experience, college or technical school training nearly seven years after high school graduation.

But that’s all changing, she said, because the mindset of employers is changing. “I see it every day in the businesses that I work with. They’re no longer underestimating the abilities of employees with Autism. Instead, they are seeing your untapped potential. They’re recognizing your unique abilities, your positive attributes and your work ethic. And they’re becoming more and more aware and willing to provide the opportunities you deserve in order to succeed. Thanks to programs like Project SEARCH, the old uneducated way of thinking is changing.”

Elize Hahn Felix, Director of Transition Services from the Jewish Community Centers Association (JCCA), which provides job coaching and work transition in the community, also had words of encouragement for the grads. “It is our mission to help young people with Autism to work towards independence. Our door never closes and if we can be of further assistance with coaching and enhancing your work experience, please don’t hesitate to call.”

The BOCES Mission

Southern Westchester BOCES’ Chief Operating Officer, Sandra Simpson, reminded the graduates and their families that the mission of SWBOCES is to collaborate with districts, agencies and communities to meet their educational challenges. Project SEARCH, she said, “is an outstanding example of this. We went into it with a lot of blind faith, but people coming together with a strong will makes things happen in a positive way.”

Little was known about Autism just 20 years ago, she said, “but we’ve grown in our understanding of the needs of this population. I think we’re doing a much better job. We certainly want to continue this and we’re beating the bushes to let districts know what an outstanding program this is.

“You make us look good,” she told the grads, “because of the way you took this so seriously. You came to work, you had many different areas that you had to learn and new people you had to work with. I hope that those cheers you heard from everyone make you feel that you were successful, because you are.

A Triumph

Program Supervisor Leslie Handler from SWBOCES handed out diplomas and Bob Newman Awards with the assistance of SWBOCES special education teacher Susan Luria. The entire team of teachers --- Reggi Iorio, Tara Fortuna, Tes Giorgio, Susan Luria and Kristine Fornaby from the JCCA --- surrounded the young men with encouragement and support on their special day, cheering for them and wiping away a few tears as they shared in this great milestone.

“This has been a triumph to watch,” Ms. Handler said. “These young men have been on an unbelievable journey. It’s such a pleasure to see how fabulous they are and how far they’ve traveled to become who they are now.”

Watch a photo video of the graduation:




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