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School-to-work program marks second year

Hospital, school district partner to train students with disabilities for paying jobs

Students with developmental disabilities described their hopes for the future in a graduation ceremony last week of Project SEARCH, a school-to-work program serving young adults from Palo Alto and other nearby school districts.

The students, aged 20 to 25, worked as interns in entry-level positions at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford, doing tasks that included filing, scanning, food services or stocking supply closets. Students can work in the gift shop, and one student even worked at making blood smears from patient blood draw, said Brian Cordero, a Palo Alto Unified School District teacher who manages the program.

Students gain work experience from the year-long internship, and some ultimately have been hired as regular employees by the hospital.

"Some of the students do perform to the level of other employees of the hospital and can show they're able to do it," Cordero said.

"Others, maybe they're starting at a different level, but the fact that they're going to keep improving and have the opportunity to improve in a structured, safe environment with supportive staff and job coaches benefits them in the future, whether or not they get a job in the hospital or somewhere else."

Twenty-two-year-old Alex Platt, a lifelong Palo Alto resident, said he "really enjoyed" his hospital internship working in data entry and highlighting parts of binders and folders and scanning them into the system.

Platt said his next step is to meet with a job coach to "try to figure out what I want to do with my future."

Job coaches from San Jose-based Hope Services work with students throughout the year to help them succeed in their internships and to find work after graduation.

Four of the 10 graduates this year have jobs so far, and seven out of last year's nine graduates are employed, Cordero said, compared to what he said typically is a 15 percent to 17 percent employment rate for people with disabilities.

Several graduates have been hired by a San Jose biotech company "for jobs that are repetitive in nature," he said.

"There's always this hesitancy from individuals or companies, but it's not their capacity to learn, it's how they learn that's a little different," Cordero said. "They're already self-motivated — they just need the opportunity and the chance to perform to show they are able to."

Packard is one of more than 200 venues for Project SEARCH across the United States, Canada, England, Scotland and Australia.

The program originated in 1996 when Erin Riehle, a nursing director at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, wondered if she could address the high turnover in entry-level positions in her department by training people with developmental disabilities to fill the jobs.

Cordero said the large number and diversity of entry-level positions in hospitals make them a good match for the program. Other Project SEARCH programs are running in several Bay Area hospitals, he said.

Yari Oseguera, who works in Packard's human resources department, said she has mentored Project SEARCH interns in jobs involving filing, labeling folders, working on spreadsheets and entering data.

"It's wonderful to be able to coach the individuals and they learn a lot from us," Oseguera said. "It all depends on our workload but if our department needs some help we'd definitely have more (Project SEARCH interns) come through in the rotations."

The June 18 graduation ceremony in the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Auditorium marked completion of the second year of the program in Palo Alto. School districts by law are responsible for educating students with developmental disabilities until age 22, Cordero said. Non-Palo Alto students have come to the program through inter-district transfers, in which the home district pays the Palo Alto school district, and other interns have been referred through Hope Services, he said.

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