NEWARK – Saturday’s walk down the White Field stage to earn his Newark High School diploma meant a little more to Cody VanValkenburg.

Actually a lot more.

Because of COVID-19, he had waited an additional year to “take the walk”. But this year has been well invested with Project SEARCH internship program at Licking Memorial Hospital, which helps Licking County’s fifth year seniors with developmental disabilities transition into adulthood.

With the program and training in Newark, VanValkenburg is ready to take this step.

“I’m excited and scared,” he admitted last week before graduation. “Because after that I open a new chapter.”

It was a big week for him when VanValkenburg received the Mike Scheid Family Achiever Award during Project SEARCH graduation at the Midland Theater. He was preferred to the other eight interns, who represent six district schools, and was given a pair of $ 250 gift cards to help with future transportation, clothing, and equipment needs.

“My brother Mike was a proud graduate of the Newark City Schools special education program in the late 1960s,” said Scheid’s brother Tom during the presentation. “Since then he has been employed successfully until his retirement and has campaigned strongly for people with developmental disabilities.”

During the program's graduation ceremony on Monday, 24 Midland Theaters in downtown Newark.  VanValkenburg was the first recipient of the award, which was associated with gift vouchers for the purchase of work clothes and for transport.

“I didn’t expect to win the award,” said Cody. “I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked.”

Those who dealt with Cody in Newark weren’t surprised that he received the honor, however. He is characterized by his fun-loving manner, his desire for hard work, and his determination to help others.

His favorite Newark High School teacher, Leona Vrbanac, said he was one of her favorites too. “As a high school student, Cody was funny, capable, and a little mischievous,” she said. “Though his nature seemed casual and spontaneous, I wonder how much time he invested in planning his daily adventures (and mishaps)?”

“He had long hair when he started at Project SEARCH,” said Cody’s grandmother Joyce Hill. “You challenged him to put it on his head and of course he did.”

Vrbanac said that Cody was constantly looking for help, looking for work, and putting a smile on someone’s face. “He was very sincere in his offer of friendship to everyone and had an infectious, irrepressible smile,” she said.

Nicole Garrison, Newark City Schools special education coordinator, said his teachers in Newark had noticed how much he had grown during his high school years, always ready to help others and being the first to come up and help others.

“Cody is hard working, motivated, and has achieved so much since I first met him,” said Garrison. “His funny personality was always one of the highlights of my trips to high school. When he had his first interview this year, we at Zoom worked together to do a simulated interview. He took feedback, accepted suggestions, and worked hard on it , get.” with ways to overcome nervousness and show who he is. ”

He enjoys doing voluntary work and has been a member of the YES Club (Youth Engaged in Services) for eight years. “He talks about it a lot,” said Hill. “He helps with homework and they make games.”

“I think he’s a brother,” said his aunt Cindy Smith. “To my son he is Uncle Cody. He loves children and is very good with children. He would be a great father.”

His family is very proud of him.

“My other kids didn’t graduate (from high school),” Hill said. “His mother (Carla Grady) graduated from Zanesville High School and is hearing impaired.”

Cody admits he’s been through a lot.

“My cousin was taken away from the children’s ministry,” he said. “I lost my grandpa and COVID-19 struck.”

Despite the pandemic, VanValkenburg worked in several areas of the Licking Memorial Hospital during the SEARCH Internship project.

He cleaned, vacuumed and dusted a lot through the environmental services.

Through maintenance and engineering, he tested water, checked equipment, used workshop tools, helped build a desk, helped build a wall and demolished a cabinet in one of the doctor’s offices.

And through the field staff, he tended the hospital lawn, mulched, weeded, worked in the greenhouse and garden of the hospital, and used an angle grinder.

Project SEARCH also taught him life skills. He learned time tracking, saving money and looking for an apartment.

VanValkenburg would like to continue its work with the ground staff at LMH or in the maintenance and engineering department or in the environmental service. “I will keep applying for hospital jobs until I find one,” he said.

Over 75 percent of Project SEARCH’s graduates find employment in Licking County, and the hospital often hires the group. There are currently five interns from last year, nine of them. Two from the original SEARCH project are still there.

VanValkenburg has been best friends with his fellow Project SEARCH graduate Natis Siegel since kindergarten. “Natis’ mother considers me a brother to him,” said Cody. Now he, Siegel, Alex Cagney and Matt Gast from Project SEARCH can also be called Newark High School graduates.

He is ready to enter professional life and start a new life. The long hair is now cut short and neatly.

“He wants to get his driver’s license,” said Hill. “As soon as he has a job, he wants to find his own place, and the place directly above me is open.”

“I am so proud of the hardworking, respectful and polite citizen he has become,” said Vrbanac.

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