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Project SEARCH Helps Students Who Have Disabilities Transition from Classroom to Workplace

Stop by the Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. and you might find Yusuf Yusuf dressed in scrubs and meticulously cleaning a patient’s room. He mops the floors, wipes down bathroom fixtures and changes linens before pausing to arrange the child’s stuffed animals neatly on her bed.

Yusuf, 21, brings an easy smile and friendly-yet-focused demeanor to his work. He’s one of six students interning at Gillette Children’s during the 2017-2018 school year as part of Project SEARCH, a school-to-work transition program for high school students who have physical or intellectual disabilities.

Project SEARCH combines classroom instruction, career exploration and hands-on training through workplace rotations. This is Gillette’s first year participating in the program, through a partnership with the White Bear Lake Area Schools.

Learning On-The-Job

Emily Norton is a special education teacher in the White Bear school district and Gillette’s Project SEARCH teacher. She’s seen substantial changes in the interns since September. “I can’t believe the amount of growth I’ve seen. When they’re immersed with professionals, and not necessarily other young adults, different social skills are being learned. Responsibility is being learned, and how much your actions affect others.”

Emily encouraged Amber Diel, also 21, to apply for Project SEARCH last spring. A lifelong Gillette patient, Amber is seeing Gillette from a new perspective in her internship. Her daily responsibilities include disinfecting toys and equipment in the rehabilitation therapies gym.

“I’m learning to be a people person and getting out of my comfort zone,” Amber says. “I can see both aspects; being a patient and now working here.”

“There’s No Place I’d Rather Be”

Students who have disabilities can receive educational programming through the White Bear Area School District through age 21. The Project SEARCH internship is considered a transitional year from school to the workplace.  

“They’re getting an education, but also on-the-job training. They’re learning soft skills like teamwork and problem-solving,” explains Emily. “They’ll receive high school diplomas after completing their internships in June, and the goal then is competitive integrated employment.”

Interns rotate between eight departments including the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, Human Resources, Respiratory Therapies, Environment of Care (housekeeping) and Rehabilitation. They point to their Gillette colleagues as a highlight.

“My favorite part of the work is that I'm surrounded by these people that really enjoy being here,” says Yusuf. “I've been getting a lot of perspective. There's no place I'd rather be than here.”

In some cases, the Project SEARCH experience helps light a path towards future work. Jordan Vance, 20, another intern, loves interacting with kids. She’s always had an interest in working at a daycare, and she’s now considering seeking employment at a children’s hospital like Gillette. 

“Being in an environment with children, it's really changed Jordan’s outlook and opened up more opportunities as far as what she’s interested in now,” says Emily.

Looking Ahead

Emily hopes to increase the number of Project SEARCH interns from six this year to eight in the 2018-2019 school year. An informational night is held at Gillette in February, when students can hear from Gillette staff members and tour the hospital. They then apply for the program through the school district.

Amber, for her part, recalls being both “nervous and excited” when she found out she’d been selected. She’ll often encounter providers who cared for her during her childhood and teen years.

“Even when we were first interviewing our intern candidates, we had several applicants that had been patients,” says Emily. I think that shows so much about Gillette. Hospitals can be scary places, but they had positive associations; they were proud. Like ‘Yeah, I came here.’”

Beth Hobbs manages employee and organizational development for Gillette. She worked closely with Gillette leadership and the White Bear Area School District to implement Project SEARCH and believes Gillette derives many benefits from the program.

“It’s important that our patients and families see people who have disabilities working at Gillette,” says Beth. “Project SEARCH also encourages our employees to view people who have disabilities as colleagues, rather than patients.”

Project SEARCH Intern Team