Seven Hattiesburg High students are spending the school year at the University of Southern Mississippi, learning marketable job skills. It's called Project Search. The pilot program is the first of it's kind in the state for students with developmental disabilities, such as Down Syndrome and Autism. Jerry Alliston is with USM's Institute for Disabilities Studies. He says the goal is to help them find work they like to do and reach their full potential.
"We're thinking entrepreneurship. Not just doing it, but can you have your own company. So we're really trying to not just get them their first job, we're looking at careers for them," said Alliston.
Alliston is at the Mississippi Council on Developmental Disabilities meeting in Pearl, to talk about the program. He says, the students are between 18 and 30 years old. They spend time in the classroom learning about issues like workplace safety and conflict resolution. The students participate in three 10 week internships on campus, at locations such as the post office, library and recreation center. Two job coaches shadow them at first and then monitor their progress. Once they learn a skill, they move onto another one. Council member Teresa Ayers has a 30-year old daughter with an intellectual disability and believes it's a great opportunity.
"We all need the regimen, the purpose of being able to say, okay I've got to get up. I've got to be up at 7 o'clock. I've got to get my shower. I've got somewhere to go, something to do," said Ayers.
College students serve as mentors for the participants. Once the program is over, they hope to place them in paying jobs. The council says there are more than 43,000 Mississippians with developmental disabilities.They're working to reduce barriers to employment.