Successful Career in the Kitchen Began with Project SEARCH

Regina Blanton photo

Altamonte Springs, FL – “I work at the Hilton Hotel in Altamonte Springs. I do a lot of food prep in the kitchen – salads, dessert cakes, and fruit – a lot of fruit,” says Regina Blanton. Regina loves her job, but it’s a miracle she’s alive to have a job at all.

Regina was born premature at two pounds, three ounces, and went through five major surgeries by the time she was 18 years old. She has permanent rods and screws in her back and neck, an intellectual disability, and limited mobility, among other disabilities, but that hasn’t stopped her.

When Regina was in high school, she came to Vocational Rehabilitation (VR), a federal-state agency that helps people with disabilities get or keep a job. Her counselor paired her with Daniel Mercedes with Quest Inc., coordinator of the Project SEARCH program at the Hilton.

Project SEARCH is a yearlong program for seniors in high school who have disabilities. They rotate to the different areas of the business, learning what a regular employee would learn about the different jobs. The students also have classroom time where they learn to write a resume, answer interview questions, cash a check, act properly in an office setting, and more.

Initially, Regina wasn’t interested in kitchen work, but she soon changed her mind. “At first, I didn’t want to even think about working with food, but then I got into the kitchen and liked it more and more,” she says. “Then, I just stayed in the kitchen all year long because I didn’t want to work anywhere else.”

After finishing Project SEARCH and graduating, Regina was offered a job in the Hilton kitchen, and she couldn’t be happier. “I like being able to cook. I like to cook muffins, mainly because they smell so good. I only do a little bit of stuff, but it’s the stuff that has to be done daily.”

Even with her long list of disabilities, Regina’s only accommodation at work is that she cannot lift more than 20 pounds. “The fruit is pretty light. I can handle that,” she explains. “The only thing I can’t handle is a bag of potatoes. Those weigh about 50 pounds.”

Regina is grateful for VR and the Project SEARCH program, and says, “Project SEARCH helped me get the career that I have now. Without project SEARCH, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

When asked about her future career goals, Regina pauses and then shares, “Honestly, to stay right where I am, and to become more skilled in cooking than what I am now.”

Florida’s Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) is a federal-state program committed to helping people with disabilities become part of America’s workforce. The employer-focused website, https://abilitieswork.employflorida.com/, allows businesses to search at no charge for employees who are ready to go to work, as well as to post available jobs. VR has 90 offices across Florida, and last year helped 5,194 Floridians with significant disabilities get or keep a job. For more information about VR and its services, call (800) 451-4327 or visit http://www.Rehabworks.org.