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Program teams with hospitals to give students job experience

Job coach Kimberly Dunn talks with Zach Pugsley, 19, in the kitchen at Kootenai Medical Center on April 6. Zach is a graduate of Coeur d’Alene High School and part of a collaboration between medical facilities and school districts to enable disabled students to get real-life job experience. (Kathy Plonka)
Job coach Kimberly Dunn talks with Zach Pugsley, 19, in the kitchen at Kootenai Medical Center on April 6. Zach is a graduate of Coeur d’Alene High School and part of a collaboration between medical facilities and school districts to enable disabled students to get real-life job experience. (Kathy Plonka)

The Coeur d’Alene High School student was awkward, timid and barely made eye contact when he started his internship at Kootenai Medical Center this past fall.

But with a little job coaching, 19-year-old Zach Pugsley soon adapted to working in the hospital’s on-site day care, and his personality quickly endeared him to the hospital staff as well as the youngsters he watched over.

Pugsley joins a growing number of special-education high school students who are participating in an intense on-the-job training program called Project SEARCH – a national program that helps those with mental and physical disabilities transition from school into the work force. It’s a one-year program that immerses the students in a workplace environment, giving them the chance to explore possible careers while still being supported by professionals.

“Where the average high school student can typically walk into a job after high school, this program provides a level playing ground for students with disabilities,” said Theresa Kirchner, Project SEARCH instructor for the Coeur d’Alene School District.

The high school transition program is new to the Inland Northwest. Pugsley is one of six students from the Coeur d’Alene area interning at Kootenai Medical Center, where the program is in its first year. Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, where there are 12 Spokane Public Schools students, began its program in fall 2009.

Pugsley is now working in Kootenai’s kitchen, but his first rotation was in the prekindergarten day care there.

“I supervised them while they played,” Pugsley said. “I colored with them, read books to them, and during nap time, I made sure everything was clean and nice.” The worst part, he said, was “while they were eating, they made a lot of messes.”

Nevertheless, he added, “It was a very good experience.”

Program expanded beyond hospitals

Project SEARCH originated 15 years ago at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center after a director there became frustrated with high turnover in entry-level jobs, such as restocking supplies. When she learned about a diversity initiative to employ qualified people with disabilities in the health care field, she teamed with businesses and agencies that advocate for people with disabilities.

The program has spread to more than 150 locations in 39 states and four countries, and it has expanded beyond hospitals into other places of employment, such as city and state agencies, zoos and financial institutions. There’s an adult program in addition to the high school transition program.

The ultimate goal is for the Project SEARCH students to be able to transition right into a job at the hospitals where they intern. That hasn’t been possible locally, because of no positions available or hiring freezes due to the poor economy. Nevertheless, the process connects students with professionals who can help place them in the local work force.

The student’s internship is like a “second senior year,” Kirchner said.

Four of the seven 2010 Project SEARCH graduates in Spokane are working, in a grocery store and in food services at Fairchild Air Force Base, said Jennifer Lusk, employment director for Skils’Kin – a nonprofit that provides support services for those with disabilities.

Project SEARCH “is a huge help,” Lusk said. “What we would like is for each department to realize that the student’s work fills a huge need and hire the student.

“Not only are employers putting a valuable employee to work, but they are also a long-term employee,” Lusk said. “It’s better to get one person in the job who learns it well and stays, rather than having a 300 percent turnover.”

While the students may have the ability to go to college for certificates that will make them better job candidates, such as a certificate in first aid, “they are not likely to achieve a specific degree,” Kirchner said. Project SEARCH gives them a much-needed advantage.

Program includes work, class time

Students work three 10-week rotations in a hospital during their unpaid internship. A job coach helps them learn the routine and specific tasks in the beginning of each rotation, then is available if the students need additional help.

“When Pugsley went to work in the day care, we had to go in and teach him a few of the tasks,” said Kimberly Dunn, job coach at Kootenai. “For example, Zach didn’t know how much pressure to apply in order to get a table clean, and I had to literally put my hands on his to show him.”

The students also are taught the importance of going to work on time and of working well with co-workers.

A typical day is four hours of work and two hours of class time, Kirchner said.

Tasks include delivering food to patients, working in the kitchen, cleaning, restocking carts with medical supplies, laundry, looking up research articles for doctors, alphabetizing patient charts, transporting patient equipment and sterilizing surgical tools.

“The students are really incorporated into each of the departments where they work,” Dunn said. After just a few weeks, the kids show “amazing growth,” she said.

“The overarching goal is to help these kids achieve community employment at the end of the internship,” said Gary Chiaravalli, director of employment services at TESH – a nonprofit that provides services for people with disabilities in North Idaho. “We try to find jobs at the hospital that will transfer into other jobs and not pigeonhole them into working at a hospital.”

An overlooked work force

North Central High School student Soretti Jaro knew she wanted an internship with Project SEARCH at Sacred Heart for the job experience, and because it would look good on her résumé, she said.

The 19-year-old also knew the opportunity wasn’t something that would just be handed to her because she’s a special-education student in Spokane Public Schools. She had to fill out an application, dress in business-casual attire and go through the interview process.

It’s rigorous, said Angela Johnstone, Spokane Public Schools director of special education.

Now Jaro’s day starts about 8 a.m. in class. At 9 a.m., she goes to work in pediatric oncology. Each weekday she uses a printed inventory list that contains more than two dozen items needed to stock a cart. She uses the items on the cart to restock four to seven rooms on the unit with items such as bandages, tongue depressors, sanitizer, paper blankets and surgical gloves.

“After I’ve restocked the rooms, I put on a pair of gloves and sanitize the counter,” Jaro said.

Her final hour at the hospital is spent in class.

“We keep sharp on math by working on spreadsheets and creating budgets,” said Garth Benham, Spokane Public Schools’ Project SEARCH teacher. “We keep sharp on writing by working on résumés and exit letters.”

Not all students can read, Johnstone said. In those cases pictures or visuals are used; for example, a picture may be placed on a storage bin so the students know where to put an item.

At the end of a 10-week rotation, the students write exit letters and apply for a new position at the hospital. Benham said that through the repeated application process the teens learn interviewing skills and self-promotion.

Lewis and Clark High School student Jacob Childs, 19, is in his third rotation at Sacred Heart. He now has a business card to hand out listing his attributes – “responsible, independent, kind” – and on the reverse, his skills: “laminating, Microsoft Office Suite, inventory and restocking.”

Partners in the program agree that Project SEARCH has one common effect on the students who participate: “The transformation,” Johnstone said. “It’s incredible.”

The program has the potential to transform employers as well, Benham said. “People with disabilities are nothing more than the next wave of diversity in the workplace. We encourage people to catch the wave.”

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