When employers focus on abilities instead of disabilities, Project SEARCH instructor Tammy Hearon knows students can succeed despite special needs.

Arconic proved that by “job carving,” matching Aryn McAndrew’s skills with work the company needed to be done. Three days a week, from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., McAndrew pulls charts, files paperwork and prepares rooms in the company’s medical department.

“She has her own office with her own nameplate,” Hearon said during a celebration Tuesday, April 20, for all five Project SEARCH graduates at the Blount County Schools Central Office.

This marks the sixth year the program has led to competitive employment for all of the students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, all of whom come from William Blount and Heritage high schools.

The pandemic made the program more challenging this year, but Hearon said it also created new opportunities.

Usually Project SEARCH is centered on the Maryville College campus, with students gaining work experience in the dining hall and other areas, but as part of COVID-19 precautions, the college sent its students home before Thanksgiving for an extended winter break.

William Blount Principal Rob Clark not only welcomed the Project SEARCH interns to continue their training, but now three of them are employed at the school.

While Clark hated to lose Hearon as a full-time employee of his school when the program started, he now calls Project SEARCH “one of the greatest things that we do.”

Jacob Wynn works full time in the evenings on the school’s maintenance crew, while his twin sister, Emily Wynn, and Dylan Pizzutiello work in the cafeteria.

Dylan said he had to learn what it’s like to work in a fast-paced food service.

Jacob said he loves his job, knowing that he is making the schools a good, clean environment for students.

David Vaughn also is working in a cafeteria, but at Union Grove Middle School, where he was once a student.

Mike Brewer, BCS special education coordinator, told the students that when he checked on their progress at work sites during the program, “Every time I went, you guys got bragged on.”

Through Project SEARCH the students also learn independent living skills, such as arranging for transportation through ETHRA (East Tennessee Human Resource Agency’s public transit service), managing their incomes and packing their lunches.

Aryn’s mother, Shannon, said of her daughter’s employment, “She did what we had always hoped she would.”

“This community has so much to offer individuals with special needs,” she added.

The program relies not only on BCS but also the Access Program from the state Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities and the Tennessee Vocational Rehabilitation Center.

Hearon also credits community support for working with the educators, including Arconic, Blount Memorial’s Morning View Village, Chicken Salad Chick, Cooper Restaurant, ESS — Education Management and Staffing Solution, Fairpark Nursing Center, Airport Hilton, Lowe’s of Maryville, McDonald’s of Maryville and Vonore, and Metz Cafe.