CHANGING LIVES: Project Search interns at Merit Health celebrate graduation milestone

Published 12:11 pm Friday, May 24, 2024

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NATCHEZ — Donta Turnbull used to never smile and refused to be in any pictures.

On Tuesday, he sat at a table inside Merit Health Natchez’s Magnolia Room with two of his peers who were enrolled in Project Search, an internship program at the hospital that helps young people with disabilities acquire skills that they need to become self-sufficient in a career and in life.

As they celebrated their graduation from the program on Wednesday, Turnbull wore a grin wide and delivered a speech that brought tears to the eyes of his mentors — particularly Natchez Adams School District Public Engagement Coordinator Tony Fields, who has been part of Turnbull’s life for as long as he’d been in school.

An emotional Tony Fields from Natchez Adams School District claps for the Project Search graduates while Superintendent Zandra McDonald Green takes pictures with her phone. (Sabrina Robertson | The Natchez Democrat)

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“I’m very proud of everybody,” Turnbull began. “I’m very proud of my mother, who gave birth to me in this very hospital. I was a one-pound baby. Thank you, Mom, for raising me and for giving me advice.”

Donta Turnbull’s mother Lakitsha Rogers smiles during her sons speech while he graduates from the Project Search program at Merit Health Natchez. (Sabrina Robertson | The Natchez Democrat)

He turned to the other two graduates Nathaniel Lloyd and JyKareyus Collier. 

“I treat them like they’re my brothers — like they’re my own family,” he said. “And Mr. Fields, man. When I say this guy right here has been there for me my whole life, from Frazier Primary, this guy has always, always uplifted me. I appreciate all you’ve done for me from first grade to Morgantown into high school. I thank you for the gift you’ve given me. I have grown from a boy to a man.”

As Turnbull received his certificate, and a medal from Mayor Dan Gibson, cell phone cameras were pointed at him in every direction and he smiled at those, too. 

“Thank goodness that the qualifying period for mayor is over,” Gibson said in a joking manner.

Some of the attendees who heard Turnbull’s speech said he would have their vote if he did run for mayor, which made him smile more.

The young adults enrolled in the Project Search internship at Merit Health Natchez this year saw significant changes in their own skills and personality by the time they completed the program, officials said.

From left is Phyllis Lewellyn of Natchez Adams School District, Project Search graduate JyKareyus Collier and Project Search instructor Ronnie Calhoun. (Sabrina Robertson | The Natchez Democrat)

Phyllis Lewellyn retired from teaching to become the special education vocational coordinator from Natchez Adams School District two years ago. 

“I’ve known Nate (Lloyd) and Donta (Turnbull) for years working at the high school and I met Jy (Collier) this year,” Lewellyn said. “When you see how far they’ve come … it’s phenomenal. We’re so proud at Natchez Adams School District to be part of this Program and we thank MDRS (Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services) and Merit Health for allowing us to be here. Thank all of you for being open to working with our young adults.”

Kevin Bishop, Deputy Administrator of MDRS, said he has the privilege of going to all of the Project Search graduations in the state. 

“It’s great to hear from everybody, all of the partners from the instructors, from the parents and from the students themselves to hear what an impact that project search has made in their lives,” he said. “This is the greatest part of my job … to see the end result. This is the culmination of 10 months of work on the student’s part to come in and take themselves out of their comfort zone, out of the protection of their families to step into an environment that they’ve never been in. … I’m sure there was some bumping of heads but they have learned from this.”

Lloyd also gave a heartwarming speech thanking all his family members, teachers and mentors that also had attendees laughing as he gave his honest opinions.

Project Search graduate Nathaniel Lloyd draws a few laughs from the crowd while speaking during his graduation Wednesday at Merit Health Natchez. (Sabrina Robertson | The Natchez Democrat)

“Nate (Lloyd) worked with me some in marketing,” said Kay Ketchings, Marketing Director for Merit Health. “I could give him something and he could recreate it. What amazed me is he did it on his phone. I was so impressed with all he did. He looked out for our patients too. He always made sure we had coffee in the ICU waiting area. That was one of his daily duties and he took ownership of that. It got to where he would get on to me because we didn’t have hot chocolate or green tea up there because not everyone drinks coffee. So now we have hot chocolate.” 

Collier didn’t share much, just a quick “thank you” and a smile as he accepted his certificate. That was also a remarkable change from 10 months ago when he entered the program, recalled his mother LaShonda Nix. 

“It’s been a long road,” she said, recalling how her son was non-verbal and wouldn’t touch anyone. “He didn’t want anyone in his personal space.”

Now, Collier gives fist bumps and brightens the day of anyone around him, she said.

Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson and Project Search graduate JyKareyus Collier. (Sabrina Robertson | The Natchez Democrat)

“If he doesn’t like something, you can’t force him,” Nix said. “I knew that this program was a good one because he was eager to be here every day.”

The hospital staff expressed how much they would miss Lloyd and Collier as they move on to other jobs after graduating from the program. Turnbull, on the other hand, will stick around for a while longer.

“He has accepted a job right here at Merit Health Natchez,” said Lewellyn.

Donta Turnbull, who used to “never smile” according to his teacher at Project Search, grins widely while receiving his graduation certificate from Phyllis Lewellyn of Natchez Adams School District while Project Search instructor Ronnie Calhoun looks on. (Sabrina Robertson | The Natchez Democrat)

Brandi Nickles of MDRS said Project Search is her passion and witnessing the end result is the best part. 

“To see this mission go through with success is amazing to me,” she said. Addressing the graduates, she added, “We want you to come into Project Search and be successful — to change your life. That is our goal. But I promise you, every person in this room, you have changed our lives.” 

Ronnie Calhoun, who is a Project SEARCH instructor said the program started two years ago with its first set of graduates in 2023 and that he hopes to see it continue for many more years. “To grow from a one-pound baby to where you are now, it’s a miracle,” he said. “Each one of you has been through more than a lot of people know about. There are no words to say how proud I am of each of you.”

From left is Phyllis Lewellyn of Natchez Adams School District, Project Search graduate Nathaniel Lloyd and Project Search instructor Ronnie Calhoun. (Sabrina Robertson | The Natchez Democrat)