Project SEARCH: 186 days to the real world

Two women lean on a counter while talking. Both women are wearing glasses and face masks.Project SEARCH graduate Nikki Jones, left, laughs with Labor and Delivery nurse Krystal Huber in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit while working as a unit coordinator in the Breidegam Family Birthing Center at Penn State Health St. Joseph Medical Center.

On the first day of her Project SEARCH class across the street from Penn State Health St. Joseph Medical Center, instructor Tracey Miller writes a number on the blackboard: 186.

February 23, 2022Penn State Health News

“This is your countdown to the real world,” she tells the students.

Project SEARCH students – this year there were nine – use each day to gain real-life work experience and training. And in the end, at least 70% of them will have landed jobs when their 186 days are up.

The 2021-2022 school year marks the fourth year that the hospital’s Bern Township campus has served as a high school transition site for the international program, which Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center created to help students with disabilities secure competitive employment.

The program is a collaboration with the Berks County Intermediate Unit, Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, Goodwill Industries and Berks County Office of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities.

Students start their morning with Miller at the blue building across the street for life and interpersonal skill training. Then, a bus takes them to their daily five-hour work experience. Here skills instructors from Goodwill Industries observe and coach them, helping them break down tasks into more manageable processes and reinforcing the soft skills taught in the classroom. On any given day, they might learn to ring up sales in Food Services, build test kits in the laboratory or manage supplies in the warehouse.

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Project SEARCH at Penn State Health
Nikki Jones, a unit coordinator in the Breidegam Family Birthing Center and Project SEARCH graduate, says the program has been essential to her success.

“I was afraid to say I have a disability because it was one of my insecurities. But, Project SEARCH helped me speak out for it,” she said. “Knowing that I could take notes, print them out and always refer to them to refresh my mind helped me get through my rotations a lot easier.”

And with staffing shortages plaguing the health care industry, Project SEARCH graduates are finding themselves more in demand than ever.

This year, managers were ready to hire four of the students within the first few weeks of the program starting.

“It has never happened that early,” said Barbara Moyer, director of volunteer services. “The hiring issues that everyone is having are giving our kids a chance to shine.”

The students, who must be in their last year of high school to participate, work through three different department rotations. In addition to developing skill sets on the job, they learn about paychecks, saving money, budgeting and other life lessons in the classroom.

“We also teach them to advocate for themselves,” Miller said. “They’re all quite comfortable explaining their disabilities and what accommodations they need.”

Their confidence and eagerness to work make St. Joseph Medical Center managers jump at the chance to hire them.

“The managers are able to observe the interns from the beginning,” Moyer said. “They know the training the interns have received and the soft skills they are taught.”

In 186 days, Project SEARCH graduates learn how to shine at St. Joseph Medical Center, Miller said.

“One of our interns, who is in a wheelchair, works in the radiology reception area. She is a wonderful ambassador for the hospital,” she said. “Project SEARCH gives the community hope and inspiration that no matter your obstacles, you can overcome them and be a great, contributing member of society.”

Project SEARCH high school transition sites at St. Joseph Medical Center and Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pa., support Penn State Health’s renewed commitment to a workplace and patient care environment where individuals with disabilities can thrive. The health system is developing a disability inclusion advisory council which will use the experiences of Project SEARCH interns and alumni to create a best-in-class experience for people with disabilities.

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