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Intern Program Challenges Students with Special Needs
November 14, 2014
Source: Tampa Tribune, FL
Nikki Bunce knows All Children’s Hospital well. It’s where she says her mother worked “helping people get better” and where she had lifesaving heart surgery when she was young.
But the 21-year-old from Pinellas Park High School, [who has developmental disabilities], never dreamed she could get a job in such a place. That’s why every day she reports to work in the hospital dining room she’s sure to make eye contact, find tables that need cleaning or stations that need stocking, and she always wears a smile.
“I love it. Nothing was too hard for me to learn, even though this is kind of new for me,” said Bunce, who interns as a dining room attendant at the hospital through its new on-the-job training program for students with disabilities.
“I love working here because I want to meet more people. Everyone is sweet and nice and I’m glad I can help them however I can,” she said. And while she could see herself working at the hospital in the future, it’s also good practice for her dream job — an actress in a horror movie, Bunce said.
Bunce and 10 other students are in their second week of on-the-job training at All Children’s Hospital/Johns Hopkins Medicine and are the first group on the West Coast of Florida to join the national Project SEARCH. The school-to-work internship program teaches real-world job skills to [students with disabilities] ages 18 to 22, at which time they are required to leave the school system.
Most of the students at All Children’s are in their 20s, and all have met the school district’s graduation requirements. But for many, this is their first exposure to a work environment, said Janna Worsham, the students’ instructor.
To be accepted into the program, students had to go through a job interview and prove they could handle the tasks they would be asked to perform through a simulated training.
“For some of them, making eye contact and talking to others was a huge challenge. But just in one week’s time it’s like watching a flower blossom,” said Worsham, a special education teacher. “I think the staff has made them feel so comfortable, their mentors have formed friendships with them, and they blend right in like another member of the staff.”
The 10-week program is a partnership with PARC, Florida Vocational Rehabilitation and Pinellas County schools and connects each student with a member of the hospital staff to serve as mentor. Students work in all areas of the hospital, from deboning chickens and bagging cookies in the kitchen to clerical work on patient floors.
Many of the jobs, like logging all of the incoming and outgoing hospital linens into a computer database, were areas the hospital could use extra hands, said Joseph Conrod, director of diversity and employee relations.
When the hospital learned of the program, which started at Cincinnati’s Children’s Hospital in 1996, all “immediately fell in love with it” and were willing to do whatever it took to make it work, Conrod said.
The hospital now has become the students’ school, and they take the school bus each morning and afternoon. Lessons center on job skills and independent living, such as proper introductions and grooming habits, scheduling a doctor’s appointment and navigating a city bus. Each day begins with a one-hour lesson and ends after five hours of work on the job, with a group debriefing on the students’ challenges and triumphs for the day.
For Elijah Shannon, 22, simply having the opportunity to work at the hospital has been a triumph. Through the school system, he landed an internship at the Loews Don CeSar Hotel rolling silverware and helping in the kitchen.
Meanwhile, working in maintenance at the hospital “always keeps me busy” and has provided plenty of lessons in time management, he said.
“It’s like a maze. There’s a lot to remember, but it’s easier when someone’s with me showing me everything,” said Shannon, from Hamilton Disston School. “I like the work I do here and I feel comfortable.”
With 10 floors and 259 patient beds to look over, including apartments to clean, conference rooms to set up and parking garages to sweep, maintenance worker Kenneth Lawton, Shannon’s mentor, said he couldn’t have asked for a better helper.
“He’s a real go-getter, and it’s exciting to see him grow and gain confidence,” said Lawton, who also has worked with juvenile delinquents for almost 30 years. “Everyone needs the same thing — encouragement, someone to keep them motivated and inspired with a can-do attitude. ... Working with the students has given us a great opportunity to help others.”
Along with Project SEARCH, the school district’s Extended Transitions program finds work at places such as Goodwill and Macy’s, and the cities of Gulfport and St. Petersburg have formed partnerships with the district to help students find employment.
The jobs that students are expected to complete at the hospital are complicated, Worsham said. “Often it’s hard for school employees to partner students with jobs as they are aging out of the school system. Many have health issues or struggle to grasp what’s acceptable and what isn’t in the workplace,” Worsham said.
The jobs are confidence-builders, she said. “I think a lot of times people try to lower the standards for students with disabilities and what they would expect of them, but here the expectations are very high and they’re so happy they can do whatever is asked of them,” Worsham said. “It’s truly amazing to see what they’re accomplishing and how their confidence is growing.”
The hospital may not be able to hire every Project SEARCH student who comes through its doors, but Conrod said the work he has seen so far makes him confident someone will hire them.
“We’re hoping other employers will look at this program and follow our lead so even more students can benefit,” Conrod said.
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