Mercy Health finds good fit for new employees through Project SEARCH

Jeremiah Sherman was nervous when he began attending the Project SEARCH program at Mercy Health – Springfield, but he knew it was a good opportunity to try to secure a better job.

The program is designed to train high-school aged students with disabilities, and it wasn’t long before others at the hospital noted that Sherman, who is on the autism spectrum, was gifted at math, perceptive with details and good at organizing. They encouraged him to give the pharmacy department a try.

It was a fit. When his training in the department was finished, the pharmacy created a full-time clerk position just for Sherman, with medical, dental and retirement benefits.

“This is my career,” says Sherman, who has now worked in the hospital’s pharmacy department for five years.

Project SEARCH has given students with disabilities the chance to learn new skills since 1996, when it began at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. The program is now international, and it first came to Mercy Health – Springfield in 2011, says Jeana Baucant Koon, the hospital’s Project SEARCH coordinator.

Since then, 77 participants have graduated, including a new class of four that completed the program in May, she says. As of last year, more than 90 percent of the graduates have found employment – including several former interns like Sherman who have jobs at the hospital itself.

“I love that everybody in this building that knows about Project SEARCH is so involved and loves the mission of this program,” Baucant Koon says.

Students apply for the program as high school students, deferring their diplomas and becoming fifth-year seniors. The time they spend as a Project SEARCH intern becomes their final year of school, Baucant Koon says.

“Kids look at it as their year of college,” she says.

The interns – who may have hearing or speech impairments, cognitive disabilities, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or other challenges – job shadow and are matched with mentors. They learn not only specific skills relating to the jobs they are performing, but also other skills like eye contact and social cues.

The interns are then placed in three consecutive 10-week rotations in different departments of the hospital, based on their skills and interests. Interns have gotten to work in a wide range of hospital areas, including engineering, housekeeping, linens, sterile processing, environmental services, receiving and shipping and more.

“We know we’re successful when we get the departments coming to us, saying, ‘Hey, are we going to get a student this year?’” Baucant Koon says.

During the program, which lasts for one school year, interns also receive help developing a resume and setting up interviews. The assistance continues as they transition into their new job.

E.J. Loewer and Alex Wright are job coaches through United Rehabilitation Services, which provides support services for Project SEARCH at Mercy Health – Springfield. Among their responsibilities, they help break down the tasks so the interns can learn and complete them in a manner that corresponds with their own way of learning, Baucant Koon says. The tweaks have been so helpful that some managers have utilized these modifications for others in their department.

Loewer also has helped interns adapt devices to their needs. United Rehabilitation Services has partnered with the University of Dayton’s engineering department for several years, working on modifications of tools for people with disabilities to use in different jobs, Loewer says. More recently, that has involved modifications to broom handles, so that they can be used by people with one arm.

In addition to the hospital, graduates have found jobs with a variety of local stores, restaurants and other employers.

Sherman trained in the dietary and maintenance departments before moving to pharmacy for his final rotation. His eye for detail meant that he caught mistakes, and he learned the necessary medical vocabulary through Project SEARCH.

“He is very highly trained,” Baucant Koon says. “It’s a very technical position, and he is absolutely the perfect person to do that job. He has saved the pharmacy so much time.”

The interns “set the bar,” often enjoying their tasks with a smile on their faces, says Jessica Pettit, the liaison for Project SEARCH, as well as the director of volunteer and auxiliary services for the hospital.

The program and the interns enrolled in it bring the hospital’s mission to life, she says.

“Our mission is to bring good help to those in need, and that’s what we base everything that we do on,” Pettit says.

Hiring people with disabilities is marginalized, despite the need and the talent that they possess,

Baucant Koon says. She feels blessed to work with this population and to see their
“extraordinary abilities and talents” in action.

“What I love about being here at the hospital is that we are the face of what Springfield is,” she says. “Folks have kids with Down syndrome and autism and traumatic brain injury. We are also visibly what part of our community looks like.”

Read more articles by Diane Erwin.