Teens with disabilities graduate from Berkeley's inaugural Project SEARCH class

Berkeley County Sup. Johnny Cribb hands graduate Timothy Johnson his diploma on Thursday.

When the Limlingans were searching for a new place to call home outside of the Philippines, they were attracted to South Carolina’s Southern hospitality and welcoming residents. It was a chance for the couple to seek quality education for their children, including meeting the proper needs for Dave, their son with disabilities.

And after watching the high school senior graduate from Berkeley County’s inaugural Project SEARCH class during a special ceremony on Thursday, Belinda Limlingan felt even more pride in the decision her family made five years ago.

“I am very thankful,” she said. “This is a blessing.”

Dave Limlingan was one of five graduates who filed into the Berkeley County Council Chambers as the traditional Pomp and Circumstance tune played in the background. They were celebrating their successful culmination of the year-long SEARCH program, a partnership among the county, Berkeley County School District, Berkeley Citizens, Inc., which serves individuals with intellectual developmental disabilities, and the South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Department covering Berkeley and Dorchester counties.

“Not only is it heartwarming after 38 years—it’s amazing what county governments and school systems can do when they work together,” said Eddie Ingram, BCSD superintendent. “All you have to do is decide to do it; it’s not a miracle, but miracles can happen when you do this.”

County Supervisor Johnny Cribb also commended the program and characterized the unique event as the career highlight of his elected position up to this point.

“I’ve only been on the job about five months, and I want to thank you guys for giving me the best day on the job so far,” he said.

Each graduate secured a diploma in front of a cheering room of friends and family, county employees and County Council members, all of whom praised the program as an integral part of growing local youth’s confidence and job skills.

“It has been amazing to watch these young adults develop and mature,” said Kelly Sieling, area supervisor for Vocational Rehabilitation.

Ingram also promised graduates they would always have the district and county’s support.

“Just because you’re a graduate doesn’t mean you aren’t still part of our family,” he said, “and we’ll continue to do everything we can to support you and love you and help you be productive, happy citizens.”

It was Amy Guerry, coordinator of special services for BCSD, who brought the program to the area—the first of its kind in the Lowcountry. She said Charleston and Colleton counties plan to also implement Project SEARCH into their school districts this coming year. Guerry was first introduced to the initiative during a conference she attended in the Upstate—where she said several such programs exist.

Teens with disabilities graduate from Berkeley's inaugural Project SEARCH class

Amy Guerry, special services coordinator for BCSD

“I came back, and I was like, ‘We need this in Berkeley County,’” Guerry said.

While the program first took root in the county in 2018, it was only conducted half the year and didn’t produce graduates. At the time, program leaders were more interested in establishing business relationships and ironing out any kinks, should they arise.

“You trusted us with a vision of something you had never seen before,” Guerry told county officials, “And I appreciate it, because with your support we’re able to support the students of our community.”

This past year, the program received 10 applications, with officials conducting a rigorous selection process to narrow down the top five seniors. The process included a skills assessment and interviews with each applicant, applicant’s parents and teachers, Guerry said. The program also requires students reside in Berkeley County and be at least a high school senior; while they can remain in the program until age 21, that’s not the goal.

“Because we don’t want them to come back to school,” Guerry said. “We want them to leave this (and go) into the world of work.

On the county side, it was the eagerness and take-charge leadership of late Councilman Ken Gunn, who passed away in February, who pushed for the program to start—and start sooner than program officials had planned.

“We wouldn’t be here today without him,” said Craig Hige, Project SEARCH instructor. “I emailed (him) in a frantic search for a place to have our program at. He responded within five minutes and said, ‘We want this program at Berkeley County.’ I said, ‘We want to start in August of 2018’; he’s like, ‘Nope, we’re going to start it in January 2018.’”

Students enrolled in the program no longer attend their respective high schools; they are removed from the classroom and placed in rotating internships with county government.

Over the last year, students performed cleaning duties and clerical work, among other assignments, in the records, real property and facility services departments. According to graduate Alisha Mungro, the tasks and interactions with county workers and volunteers taught her valuable life skills.

“I am so thankful for the people here for teaching me to be an adult in a work room,” she said.

Fellow graduate Timothy Johnson pointed to work as a public “greeter” at one of the offices as his favorite internship during the program.

“Because I was able to get better at talking to people face-to-face,” he said. “I also enjoyed meeting new people. There are so many people in this building that have helped me this year.”

County officials said they anticipate more departments joining the program next year, growing its future involvement and impact.

“I think the smallest this program will ever be is today,” Cribb said. “This is a worthwhile program.”

Cribb also touted the program as a beneficial way to connect local employers with qualified employees and revealed how early in his career, during his days as a school teacher, he, too, worked as a co-op director to find jobs for youth. He explained that while locating quality workforce members has been a recent challenge across the county and state, the program’s graduates are helping change that.

“Finding good employees right now is really difficult,” Cribb said, “and that’s what you guys have been—you’ve been great employees for the county. We have a lot of need in the county, and you guys are here providing a very valuable service.”

And each graduate is ready for the next chapter, ready to start employment and spend that first paycheck—though not on themselves. Dave Limlingan told the crowd he’ll be sending his paycheck to his grandparents in the Philippines to cover their medication costs. Johnson said he wants to help with household expenses and save for the future.

At least three of the graduates already have employment, many of them working with the Naval Weapons Station in Goose Creek; the other two plan to secure jobs this summer. And to encourage graduates in their next life season, Seiling offered them what she labeled as two vital “tidbits.”

“When you start your new job…just two things I want you to remember that you can control every day when you go to work,” she said. “One of those is your work ethic, and the other is your attitude.”

Other graduates included Brittany Swihart and Mikal Shaw, who was awarded the “Most Improved Intern” award.

Teens with disabilities graduate from Berkeley's inaugural Project SEARCH class

Graduates with Berkeley County leaders and Berkeley County School District officials