Opening Doors to the World
Left to right: CHLA team members Ana Castro, Ellen Zaman, Susan Gantan and Rolando Gomez; Michael Whitfield of LAUSD; Project SEARCH interns Edgar R. and Roberto S.; Charles Farruggia of PathPoint; Project SEARCH intern Guadalupe B., and CHLA team members Claudia Ramirez, Natalie Jorgensen, Ernesto Rodriguez and Olga Taylor.
Children’s Hospital Los Angeles launches its third year of welcoming interns from Project SEARCH, a unique transition-to-work program designed to build independence.
By Candace Pearson
Having a job you enjoy and do well—where people appreciate your efforts—can be a tremendous boost to your self-esteem, as the interns in Project SEARCH have learned from their time at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
At the same time, the hospital staff members who have supervised and mentored students in the unique transition-to-work program discovered unexpected benefits from participating as well.
“Helping these young people helped me, too,” says Rhonda Salalac, Associate Director of Quality Assurance and Process Improvement at CHLA. “I learned everyone is capable of contributing something important. They grew with us and we grew with them.”
Now in its third year at Children’s Hospital, Project SEARCH is a nationwide, one-year employment preparation program for young people with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities. In California, the program is coordinated by the nonprofit PathPoint. Here in Los Angeles, PathPoint collaborates with the Los Angeles Unified School District, Frank D. Lanterman Regional Center and South Central Los Angeles Regional Center to support the interns’ training.
The workplace-based program combines real-life experience at employers like Children’s Hospital Los Angeles with job training and independent-living skills. The goal: to help young people, typically in their last year of high school, become confident and productive adults.
“Children’s Hospital’s commitment to being a great neighbor and community partner includes programs that promote employment and career opportunities,” says Natalie Jorgensen, Program Administrator, Community Affairs, at CHLA. “Project SEARCH is a perfect embodiment of that goal—a true win-win for the hospital, the students and our community.”
In 2019-20, Children’s Hospital’s first year in the program, Project SEARCH interns took on tasks in Human Resources, Information Systems, Volunteer Resources and the Gift Shop. The 2020-21 cohort of interns went virtual, as pandemic restrictions kept them from working on site. The next group of interns is expected to start their assignments in September 2021, and the hospital hopes to host them in person, says Jorgensen. CHLA employees are ready to welcome them.
During their internship year, Project SEARCH interns essentially “try on” three different jobs within their employer organization, rotating after a three-month stay at each assignment. Mornings are spent in an on-site training room at Children’s Hospital where Mike Whitfield, community-based instruction coordinator at LAUSD, leads discussions on such topics as employability, team building, workplace safety, financial literacy, self-advocacy and preparing for employment. In the afternoon, the interns go to work at their assigned jobs in the hospital.
Away from work, the students practice other important life skills such as taking public transportation—getting to and from the job on their own—as well as banking and using the laundromat.
Most of the interns have never been in a professional environment and are coming straight from school. “We stretch them from students into young professionals,” says Whitfield.
Project SEARCH had its start in a pediatric hospital in Cincinnati. PathPoint’s collaborations take place in five California counties, primarily in medical centers, senior living facilities and hotels.
The tasks the interns take on vary, and typically include office duties like filing or computer inputting, handling cash registers, cleaning and stocking shelves. “The goal is to train each individual in as many transferable skills as possible,” says Charlie Farruggia, Program Manager at PathPoint, “so they can be more competitive for jobs in the marketplace.”
In the Volunteer Resources department at CHLA, future job skills were honed in what is essentially one of the city’s busiest “toy stores”—the storage area where approximately 125,000 toys are inventoried, cleaned and organized every year before being given or loaned to patients. The interns worked alongside CHLA employees and volunteers to package, clean, restock, and distribute the toys.
“The Project SEARCH interns reflect our mission as a hospital to create hope and build healthier futures,” says Rosby Lamm, Manager of Volunteer Resources. “We set out to help create these students’ healthier futures. At the same time, they were a joy for us to work with.”
Working with Salalac in the Information Services department called for other skills. The interns learned to work the copy machine, prepare for meetings, listen in on service calls to fill out request tickets and create spreadsheets. Salalac routinely took interns to meetings with her to increase their understanding about “what it means to work in a corporate environment and in a hospital,” she says.
The interns were eager to learn and do a great job, say Salalac and Lamm. The words they use to describe the interns’ work attributes would look good on anyone’s resume—“meticulous,” “diligent,” “energetic,” “motivated,” “dedicated,” “attentive to detail.”
Following their year-long internship, the Project SEARCH students continue working with PathPoint to apply for employment in the community.
“We are setting up our student interns for a life that involves more independences than they currently have,” says Farruggia. “It’s an exciting transition to watch and to be a part of.”
For businesses like Children’s Hospital that sign on to welcome Project SEARCH interns, the goal is the same. “It was great to introduce the Project SEARCH students to things they didn’t know they were capable of,” says Salalac of her time as a mentor at Children’s Hospital. “I can’t think of anything more rewarding.”