DURHAM — 'Tis tassel season.

In recent weeks, caps were thrown and degrees handed to graduates at UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University, N.C. Central University, Durham Technical Community College and other collegiate institutions.

In the coming weeks, dozens of 4.0 — and higher — GPA-ed high school valedictorians will speak at their own commencement ceremonies.

On May 16, a slightly different sort of graduation ceremony took place.

Eight students taking part in Project SEARCH graduated at the sixth annual Project SEARCH graduation to take place in Durham.

Project SEARCH defines itself as a secondary transition training program for cognitively disabled students who have completed their academic requirements but would profit from training better developing their "workforce" skills, thus, making them more likely candidates for future employment.

Project SEARCH began at the Cincinnati Children's Medical Center in 1996 but partnered with Durham Public Schools and Duke Regional Hospital six years ago. Its students take classes aimed at teaching on the job skills and enter into internships.

The internships are based in Duke Regional Hospital departments such as Food and Nutritional Services.

Project SEARCH participants here must be between the ages of 18 and 22 and begin the program during their senior year of high school. They have to attend a school within the Durham Public Schools system.

The project strives to places its students in jobs. Sometimes they're even hired by the Duke Regional Hospital.

Elijah Becton went through Project SEARCH and afterward was hired as a full-time employee in Duke Regional Hospital's Food and Nutritional Services about a year and a half ago, he said.

He was a senior at Southern High School when a school administrator first approached him with the idea.

"When I went to Southern, they gave me a piece of paper. And the piece of paper had Project SEARCH on it," Becton said. "They said that's what you'll be doing. That's where I'd be going. I said 'All right.' And that's when I came to Duke, Duke Regional."

He was shown around hospital and decided he liked the kitchen and its staff best.

"I learned a lot. I was in the dish room," Becton said. "I was doing some of everything on the tray line."

Becton said the tray line is essentially — " like, basically, how can I put it?" — an assembly line on which the patient meals are configured.

First thing every workday, Becton said, he washes his hands, puts on his apron and dons his gloves.

"And then I get ready to take out the trash," he said. "I take out the cardboard. Make sure everything is straight and then go 'hit the pots.'"

Becton not only holds a steady job but is reportedly an expert at "hitting the pots."

He's fast — real fast.

Kitchen staff members say he is a valued member of the team — an "invaluable" crew member — and far away from being labeled as someone brought in to meet a quota.

He "scrubs" and inspects the pots before sending them through the dishwasher at a lighting pace.

Aileen Womak-Montes is a Project SEARCH teacher and she teaches her students "everything that will help them be successful in life after high school," she said.

"Like how to behave, what's your dream, how to achieve a goal, how to behave professionally in a work environment," Womak-Montes said.

There are three main project teaching categories, including workplace skills, social and emotional development and daily living skills.

"So many of our students are lacking in conceptual thinking," she said. "So they move through life ... with this sense that they will always keep moving and somebody will tell them what to do."

But she added, "in this training program we get to be in a business and we get to kind of open the doors" of possibility for them.

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