Christopher Petrovich can’t help but smile at his co-workers when they giggle at him as the three fold blankets, sheets and rags piled high in the laundry room at Central Peninsula Hospital.
At a slow, but steady pace, Petrovich worked methodically on a recent Thursday, trying to fold a stack of small, blue blankets. Each had to be facing the same direction, a task that took him some time to figure out.
He’s one of three Project SEARCH interns working in the hospital, part of a program that provides job training to people with disabilities.
For the past two years, students who have completed the program have successfully gotten jobs in the community. Previous interns have been hired at the hospital as well.
Now, three new interns are hopeful that the skills they gain will also help them find employment.
“That’s kind of setting the bar high, now I’ve got to do it again with these three students, but I have good students, I really do,” said Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Special Education teacher Fran Stetson.
Forrest Henry, a new intern, started his program in September.
Currently, he works in materials management, keeping hospital supplies stocked both in a warehouse-type room on the lower floor of the hospital and also by making deliveries to other departments.
“The most challenging part is trying to get there on time, getting as (many) supplies as you can there, doing it accurately and doing it all at once,” he said.
Henry, who previously worked at Fred Meyer in Soldotna, said he wanted to do some vocational training.
“Of course, finding out that Project SEARCH provides vocational training, what better place to start than here,” he said.
Henry walked the aisles of the mini-warehouse explaining where different types of office and medical supplies were stored. A steady stream of music, primarily hip-hop, blared from a nearby computer. He said he likes the job, the music and his coworkers.
“Some of that stuff, I actually dance to,” he said, grinning as the opening bars of Iggy Azalea’s ‘Fancy,’ filled the room.
At a Sept. 29 open house for the Project SEARCH High School Transition Program, which helps students with disabilities transition from high school to the work force, Patrick Reinhart, project coordinator with the Alaska Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education, presented an award the local program received its success.
“What’s really exciting is the … students … all got good paying jobs and (are) living in the community and we’re so proud of that,” he said at the open house.
A previous intern said without Project SEARCH, she doesn’t think she would have gotten where she is now.
“I think Project SEARCH definitely helped me out on that,” said Sarah Mohorcich, who has been working at Fred Meyer for about a year.
Mohorcich was one of the first students to intern at the hospital through Project SEARCH. She currently works in the nutrition department at Fred Meyer, where she utilizes skills she learned interning in the hospital’s behavioral health, kitchen and imaging departments.
Mohorcich said at the hospital, she learned how to better communicate with people and ask for help.
“It’s OK to ask, if you’re done with this job, what do you do next,” she said.
Not only did she learn different skills in each department, she also learned how to proceed through interviews in the process.
At the end of the hospital internship, Mohorcich said each student made a booklet that had information they needed for job interviews such as resumes. She said she applied to many places, but she really wanted to work at Fred Meyer.
When she got hired, Mohorcich began working in the hygiene department with shampoo, conditioner and other products, but it she said she wanted to do more.
After a while she was transferred to nutrition, which she likes better because it’s busier and she gets to do a wider variety of tasks.
She said it was challenging learning a new work environment at Fred Meyer after working at the hospital for 30 weeks, she said.
“Getting to know the people that worked there and getting to know where everything was and trying to figure out the system that I needed to get everything done,” she said was the most difficult part of starter her new job.
Project SEARCH started in the mid-1990s and has spread across the nation and has been implemented in other countries. The program kicked off locally three years ago through a partnership among the hospital, the school district and state agencies.
Three recent graduates from Central Kenai Peninsula area schools, Henry, Petrovich and Acacia Fisher, began interning at the hospital about a month ago through the program. The interns shared their experiences and their dreams for the future with the attendees at the open house.
Stetson and Liz Cristiano, a special education aide, work with the students to determine what their three 10-week rotations at the hospital will be based on the students’ goals.
“We try to figure out what the skills are for a job like that and then we’ll put them into departments where they’re going to learn that skill,” Stetson said.
Fisher keeps busy at the hospital working in the behavioral health office where she makes copies and files documents. She would like to become a certified nursing assistant.
She said the best part about her internship is “being around positive people everyday.”
Petrovich is learning custodial skills in environmental services. He said cleaning skills are good for everybody to know, but he’s looking forward to gaining differing skills in his next two rotations. In the future, he would like to work in a movie theater.
Henry said he can’t wait to work in the hospital’s kitchen during his internship. Henry said he has been cooking since he was about 10 years old.
“Nothing makes me happier than people saying, ‘mm that’s good,’ he said. Some day, he’d like to work for a cruise line.
Stetson said in the interns’ first rotation, she likes to focus on social skills and being professional, which can be learned in many different hospital departments.
“A lot of our students have never worked before, so they don’t really understand or know what’s needed,” she said.
Last year, Stetson said 10 students applied for the program, which is the largest pool of applicants the program has had. Instead of getting the number of interns up, Stetson said she wants to focus on the success of the program.
“You really have to have a will that you want to work,” Stetson said about the interns. “This program doesn’t work for students who really don’t want to learn how to work.”