February 23, 2024

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UK HealthCare offers students with disabilities immersive job, education experience

6 min read

Video produced by UK Public Relations and Strategic Communications. To view captions for this video, push play and click on the CC icon in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. If using a mobile device, click on the “thought bubble” in the same area.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 26, 2023) In an office suite at the University of Kentucky Albert B. Chandler Hospital, Ella quickly and expertly sorts mail. In the nearby lobby atrium, Richard ensures there are enough masks and tissues for visitors. Daniel assists with moving and organizing medical supplies in the warehouse a few miles away.

These are a few of the newest interns at UK HealthCare, immersed in the day-to-day operations of the bustling hospital enterprise. They are also the first cohort of Project SEARCH students at UK HealthCare. A transition-to-work program for high school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Project SEARCH offers young people immersive job experiences to help them develop new skills.

“We are thrilled to announce UK HealthCare as the first academic medical center in Kentucky to serve as a hub site for Project SEARCH. This distinction empowers us to provide the transformative Project SEARCH program to our inaugural student cohort and countless others in the years ahead,” said Tukea Talbert, chief diversity and health equity officer at UK HealthCare. “We view Project SEARCH as an innovative and promising avenue to concentrate on students right here in Lexington who often encounter challenges. We want to help them overcome those obstacles by fostering meaningful pathways for them to discover purposeful and fulfilling employment.”

Launched in August 2023, seven students from Fayette County high schools are taking part in a nine-month immersive internship, getting real-world experience and mentorship in different areas across UK HealthCare. They went through a skills assessment and were assigned to areas based on their interests and abilities. These areas include hospital administration, environmental services, patient experience, central sterile services, purchasing and materials, and integrative medicine.

Project SEARCH was developed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 1996 by Erin Riehle, director of the hospital’s emergency department, and Susie Rutkowski, then a special education director. The goal was to create a training program for young adults with developmental disabilities that could fill some entry-level positions in the hospital. The program has since expanded to other industries, giving young adults important work and social skills necessary to find meaningful employment and earn income. Since its inception, Project SEARCH has grown to almost 800 sites in 48 states and 10 countries. 

“The goal for each program participant is competitive employment,” said Rutkowski, now the co-director and educational specialist for Project SEARCH. “The Project SEARCH model involves an extensive period of skills training and an internship immersion experience. It gives the interns continuous feedback from the instructor, skills trainers and the departments where the internship occurs. As a result, students with significant intellectual disabilities are employed in nontraditional, complex and rewarding jobs.”

“In Kentucky, there is a 42% gap in employment between those with disabilities and those without. With this collaboration, we are looking to help close that gap,” said Eric Monday, UK co-executive vice president for health affairs. “I hope this partnership will lead to more project sites around the state so we can impact not only the Lexington community but all Kentuckians, no matter where they are from. That is our primary mission — to serve and advance Kentucky.”

UK HealthCare partnered with UK’s Human Development Institute (HDI), Fayette County Public Schools (FCPS) and the Kentucky Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) to become the fourth Project SEARCH site in the Commonwealth.

“The interns will learn a defined set of transferrable skills that will set them apart from other job seekers looking for employment within the health care field,” said Ryan Henson, regional project manager and statewide Project SEARCH coordinator for OVR. “This immersive experience is an outstanding training tool for these students. In our other sites, many have gone on to advance in their employment and experience more than just a job but the foundation for a career.”

OVR, part of the Kentucky Career Center, assists with the long-term vocational guidance and counseling as well as financial support of the program in the job sites and facilitates partnerships between school systems and area businesses.

“It takes the right mix of school system support and the host business commitment to make the program successful,” said Henson. “OVR will always support new sites as long as they promote the mission of our agency — training and employment of individuals with disabilities in Kentucky.”

In addition to their on-the-job training, the students spend time in a classroom where they learn skills such as how to interact with coworkers and safety in the workplace.

“Being a part of Project Search, you’re given access to a whole curriculum that touches on different skills,” said Holly McCombs, the Project SEARCH program instructor and an FCPS teacher. “We’re afforded time to work on those skills in a really intentional way.”

A typical day for the students includes classroom time to practice their workplace skills before going to their job sites for two hours. After lunch with their colleagues, they’ll work for a brief period before returning to their classroom to wrap up their day. Any questions the students may have about their experience can be applied to the next lesson.

“Because of the population that we’re working with, students sometimes struggle with what’s called generalization, which is learning a skill within a particular place and then being able to take that skill and use it in another place with other people under different circumstances,” said McCombs. “Giving them the opportunity to go right into the internship site in that immersive situation and then talking about it during classroom time is going to help our students so much with generalization.”

“Ella looks forward to attending every day. She feels important! Any challenges she’s been given have made her feel like she has a purpose,” said Rica Ricketts, Ella’s mother. Ella is a student at The Learning Center.

“I like the idea of her having the opportunity to gain work experience onsite while getting the assistance she needs to succeed. I feel it will help her find her strengths, improve her formal communication skills and make her feel like she belongs to a community,” said Ricketts.

To aid the team behind UK’s Project SEARCH site, HDI will provide additional training throughout the year, including webinars, classes and activities, and will be involved as students transition from internships to employment.

“Empowering students through programs like Project SEARCH not only opens doors to new skills but also nurtures their limitless potential,” said Kathy Sheppard-Jones, executive director of HDI. “I believe that Project SEARCH exemplifies our commitment to fostering meaningful opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Through this transformative program, we illuminate the path to independence, bridging the gap between education and employment for more inclusion moving forward.”

As for the future of the partnership between Project SEARCH and UK HealthCare, coordinators on both sides hope to see new cohorts of students mentored by program graduates who have embarked on careers in health care.

“I hope that our kids get jobs in the hospital when they graduate and are mentors for the next group,” said Rachel Baker, program director for Integrated and Supported Employment for FCPS. “I think that’s very powerful for a child with a disability to see others with a disability confident in conquering all of those obstacles that might be in their way.”

The goal of Project SEARCH is to not just give students skills and work experience but to instill in them a sense of pride and independence.

“We all have the right to work and contribute. We all have a purpose every day when we get up,” said Baker. “Confidence is the skill that I like to see all our kids build. Their disability doesn’t make them less or not able to do things. They just do things in a different way.”

“It’s very important for us to invest in our people and bring on other talented individuals to join the effort of creating a healthier Kentucky. We also strive to continue to build an inclusive culture, welcoming people of all abilities. In doing so we are bolstering the foundational pillars of our strategic plan here at UK HealthCare,” said Talbert. “I believe big things start with small steps and our unique group of students are taking the first collective step for our Project SEARCH site.”

Learn more about Project SEARCH at UK HealthCare here.

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