Project SEARCH interns work behind the scenes at hospital

Six Kenai Peninsula Borough School District students and graduates who spent part of this year working at Central Peninsula Hospital — folding linens, stocking and inventorying supplies, entering data, making beds, addressing envelopes, and sanitizing rooms — met with prospective employers and other members of the public at the Project Search Open House, held at the hospital on Tuesday.

The six worked in the hospital as part of the Project SEARCH program, which seeks to give developmentally disabled students job experience and training by placing them as interns in entry-level support positions at the hospital.

Project SEARCH Skills Trainer Joe Gallagher said that after students apply for Project Search in the spring, they start their internships in August. They work about 9 weeks each in three chosen departments of the hospital, which include human resources, imaging, maintenance, materials management, dietary, financial services, and laundry.

“The hospital’s a fantastic job site because there’s so many jobs,” Gallagher said.

In each department, the hospital assigns the students a mentor. Danielle Bahl, of CPH’s material management department, served as a mentor to Project SEARCH participants during their time in her department.

Of one participant, Michael Petrovich, Bahl said that he “really came out of his shell” during his time working with her.

“I think it was a good social experience for him,” Bahl said.

In addition to general workplace exposure, Petrovich gained specific technical skills from his internship, Bahl said. He learned to use a commercial cardboard compactor and a Pyxis Medstation, a computerized medication dispensing system that Bahl said is common in many hospitals.

According to his resume, Petrovich is now seeking a position as a stock clerk.

After the school district and hospital have given them work experience, Vocation Program Manager Nikki Marcano of Frontier Community Resources helps Project SEARCH alumni find places to apply it. Marcano spends her days matching the interests and abilities of disabled job-seekers with local openings, managing accommodations her clients might need in the workplace, and meeting with employers to sell them on the skills the people in her program could bring.

“People with disabilities tend to work a lot and work hard,” Marcano said.

In the past, Marcano said there have been few employment options for the disabled apart from “sheltered workshops,” a U.S. Department of Labor term for workplaces dedicated to employing disabled workers separately from others. Unlike the jobs she seeks for Project SEARCH alumni in established community businesses, Marcano said sheltered workshops pay sub-minimum wages and seldom have opportunities for training or advancement.

With programs like Project SEARCH, Marcano said, the idea of disabled people working alongside the general population is slowly catching on.

According to the event sign-in sheet, about 51 people — including representatives of employers such as Fred Meyer department store, Foster Construction, GCI, and Sweeney’s — came to meet and talk with the interns about their experience, read the presentation boards they’d made, and pick up copies of the resumés they’d written. Other local businesses that have attended in the past, according to a school district press release, include Walmart, Walgreens, Heritage Place and Charis Place assisted living centers, Blue Moose Bed and Biscuit, and the school district itself.

The nation-wide Project SEARCH program began in 1996, when the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center began seeking people with developmental disabilities to fill entry-level, high-turnover positions. The project started on the peninsula in 2012, according to previous Clarion reporting, with a partnership between the Kenai Peninsula School District, Central Peninsula Hospital, and various state agencies.

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