Nygil participates in a therapy session at ICSCIC. (courtesy photo)

By Mylika Scatliffe,
AFRO Women’s Health Writer

Nygil Sims’ typical workday as a Rehabilitation Technician involves supporting physical therapists as they treat patients with severe spinal cord injuries. 

His tasks range from helping manipulate patients’ legs as they relearn to walk on the treadmill, to playing games of UNO or arranging T-shirt tie-dyeing sessions to distract patients from the less pleasant aspects of therapy. He works closely with the staff at the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury (ICSCI) at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. 

And this is only the beginning.

Sims, 25, is a graduate of Project SEARCH, a 10-month transition program for 18- to 24-year-olds with disabilities. 

Nygil Sims, Rehabilitation Technician at the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury (ICSCI) at Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. (courtesy photo)

Kennedy Krieger Institute celebrated the graduation of the fourth cohort of Project SEARCH on June 7. Participants gain valuable on-the-job training through a workplace immersion program where they take advantage of opportunities to explore different career paths and workplace cultures, according to the description of the program on the Kennedy Krieger/Project SEARCH website. The program, meant for individuals in their final year of college, works to ensure a smooth transition to the workplace for its participants.  

Sims, who has ADHD and a learning disability, was recommended to the program by one of his instructors at the Community College of Baltimore County, Dundalk (CCBC).  June 26 will mark the third anniversary of his graduation as a member of the first cohort of Project SEARCH. 

“I had to do adult things since I was stepping into adulthood,” said Sims. 

Dr. Nia Wallace Ward, 39, is the supervisor of the Rehabilitation Technicians and Support Services at ICSCI and has been an employee at Kennedy Krieger for 14 years.  She supervised Sims during his rotation at ICSCI and continues to work closely with him as he’s a full-time rehabilitation technician. 

Wallace Ward is committed to ensuring Project SEARCH cohorts have productive experiences.  

“Thinking about inclusivity in the workplace means making sure the experience is meaningful to each person by finding out specifically what they need and finding ways to meet those needs,” said Wallace Ward. 

Dr. Nia Wallace Ward continues to work closely with Project SEARCH cohorts. (courtesy photo)

According to Wallace Ward, this involves reaching out to departments throughout the institute.  Wallace Ward’s initiative and dedication to making sure each intern gets the maximum benefit from their work with Project SEARCH led to her being nominated for and awarded the Excellence in Neurodiversity Award by her peers.  

Project SEARCH at Kennedy Krieger is modeled after the original Project SEARCH at Cincinnati’s Children’s Hospital Medical Center.  It was founded in 1996 to provide those with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities with real-life work experience and has been adopted by hospitals around the globe.

Stacey Herman, the assistant vice president of Neurodiversity and Community Workforce Development at Kennedy Krieger, stated that Project SEARCH began as a board-driven initiative, with the first cohort graduating in 2019. 

“There are a lot of barriers to employment for individuals with disabilities. We realized we needed to increase awareness and train businesses about being inclusive, as well as dispel some myths,” said Herman. “Employers often believe it will require more effort and resources to employ persons with disabilities.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), disability affects approximately 61 million, or nearly 26 percent of people living in communities across the United States. Disability inclusion, as defined by the CDC means “understanding the relationship between the way people function and how they participate in society. Including, making sure everybody has the same opportunities to participate in every aspect of life to the best of their abilities and desires.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 81 percent of individuals with disabilities are not in the workforce.

Project Search aims to simultaneously break down barriers and prepare interns for successful and productive adult lives, according to Herman. The 10-month program includes three worksite rotations, each one lasting for 10 weeks.  Those that participate with some of the external partners get the chance to experience different industries and those that participate within Kennedy Krieger get experience in three different departments across the Institute. 

Interns often secure full-time positions upon completing the program. 

“Project SEARCH involves the entire institute whether that means providing work experience in the various departments throughout Kennedy Krieger, as well as members of the various departments coming to speak with the interns,” said Herman.

Sims completed his worksite rotations within Kennedy Krieger. The first at ICSCI, the second within the Behavioral Psych department and the third a hybrid of the two departments. He was immediately offered a full-time position as a rehabilitation technician at ICSCI upon completion of the program and has served as a mentor to participants in later Project SEARCH cohorts. Sims is a valued member of the physical therapy team by staff members and patients alike.

The first hour of each day during the Project SEARCH program involves employability training. Cohorts learn “soft skills,” including, but not limited to, time management, email etiquette and financial literacy.  These skills are essential as they translate to self-sufficiency and marketability for everyday life in the “real world.”

Community partners of Project SEARCH include Royal Farms, Aberdeen Iron Birds, and Meals on Wheels; the latter was recognized as “Business of the Year” at this year’s graduation.  Meals on Wheels was acknowledged for their consistent involvement in providing significant experiences for Project SEARCH interns. 

The program started with participation from just nine departments across Kennedy Krieger. Now there are 25 participating departments, and they immediately think about Project SEARCH when staffing needs arise.

Sims has lived independently in his own apartment for the last two years. When asked who provided moral and practical support during his time in Project SEARCH and with navigating daily life, Sims replied, “Stacey, Nia, my grandmother, and myself. Some days are better than others living alone, but it’s nice because it’s my own.”

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