WellSpan Health Empowers People with Disabilities

Project SEARCH is a one-year, school-to-work program that provides total immersion in the workplace.

Edited by Margery Weinstein

WellSpan Health has a long tradition of understanding the benefits of employing a diverse workforce to meet the health-care needs of a diverse community. Understanding that WellSpan’s commitment to diversity included opportunities for people with disabilities, joining other organizations that have partnered with community resources to become a training site for students with disabilities seemed like a natural fit.

Project SEARCH is a one-year, school-to-work program that provides total immersion in the workplace. The program originated more than 10 years ago at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital when a nursing leader at the hospital experienced high turnover with some positions she believed people with disabilities would be able to successfully fill. The program is currently in place in more than 150 employment sites across the country and internationally. The goal is to provide students with real-life work experience and prepare them for competitive employment.

Locally, Project SEARCH is a partnership among WellSpan, Lincoln Intermediate Unit (LIU), the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR), and York/Adams Mental Health/Mental Retardation.

Students work in their assigned area for four or five hours a day and spend one hour a day in classroom instruction. A full-time teacher and job coaches provide instruction in employability and independent living skills. Project SEARCH students are not guaranteed employment with WellSpan, but as they gain experience, they are eligible to apply for jobs.

As of fall 2012, three classes of Project SEARCH students with 10 students in each class became a part of the WellSpan community, primarily at WellSpan’s York Hospital facility. The classes of 2011 and 2012 graduated all 20 participating students, with 11 students successfully employed (three at WellSpan) and two students volunteering at York Hospital. Students in the class of 2013 have the opportunity to rotate for experience at WellSpan Surgical and Rehabilitation Hospital (WSRH) as WellSpan has increased the number of participating job sites to more than 25.

Although it was anticipated that WellSpan would be able to provide a valuable experience for participating students, the organization underestimated the impact the students would have on its workforce. The students role model an appreciation of being part of WellSpan, as well as a commitment to hard work and customer service that is an example for everyone around them.

An example of the impact of Project Search in the workplace is Mary Burkey. As a student in Project SEARCH, Burkey worked in Patient Transport and Housekeeping, where she earned the nickname, “Little Miss Sunshine,” from her co-workers for her pleasant, upbeat personality. She was the first Project SEARCH student to be hired full-time at WellSpan in April 2012, to work in Housekeeping at the WellSpan Surgery and Rehabilitation Hospital. In fact, she was the first employee hired at WSRH in the service/facilities team.

Betty Malerich, one the job coaches, said, “This is a life-changing experience for Mary. She is able to support herself and now has medical benefits. Everyone in Project SEARCH looks up to her. She has shown them what’s possible and given the students so much hope.”

Project SEARCH is a workforce development program that benefits the individual, community, and workplace and is a great example of creativity meeting a critical business need with the skills and abilities of an under-utilized source of talent.

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