ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Jesse Potter worked diligently on a recent morning to disinfect and clean a baby bed inside the University of New Mexico Hospital’s newborn intensive care unit.
Potter, 20, who has Down syndrome, is an intern at the hospital under a new program called Project Search.
Through the job training program – a first-year collaboration between the school district, UNMH and several other partners – students with developmental disabilities work as unpaid interns at the hospital and, if they successfully complete their training, the hospital hires them as full-time employees.
“You can see the pride” in Jesse, said his mother, Julie Potter.
The internship gives her son a sense of purpose and he thinks of it as his college experience, she said.
When Jesse graduated high school in 2013, he joined APS’s transition services, a program that helps students with disabilities transition to life after high school.
It was a scary time, not unlike when Julie Potter first learned Jesse had Down syndrome, she said. She questioned whether Jesse would be able to find a job, much less one that he liked and that filled him with a sense of accomplishment. After learning about Project Search, she rushed to sign up her son.
The program at UNMH is modeled after the first Project Search program, which was launched at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 1996.
The program’s founder, Erin Reihle, a nurse at the Cincinnati hospital, recently visited UNMH to see its Project Search program.
Reihle said she noticed one day that there were many disabled people in the waiting room but there were next to none on the staff of her hospital.
“It felt like, if these folks were going to come to us to be our patients, we needed to offer them the same opportunities for training as we did everybody else,” Reihle said.
UNM Regent Jamie Koch proposed UNMH adopt its own Project Search program last year.
Because the interns are trained in repetitive tasks, they can master their jobs by the end of their internship, agreed Philip Pelleriti, UNMH human resource recruitment manager.
“The thing about people with disabilities is they are capable of doing difficult tasks but they need a lot of training,” he said.
Under the Project Search programs, in addition to work, students attend a class at the hospital staffed by APS teachers and job coaches who will teach them life skills, like how to balance a personal budget, and job skills, like how to interview for a position.
And the ultimate goal of the internship program is to place one of the interns into a permanent job at the
hospital. To date, two of the 10 interns have been placed in full-time jobs at UNMH, said Connie Fasanella, APS principal of transition services.
The jobs are by no means charity, Pelleriti said. He said they work in rehab services, the mail room, food service and human resources, among other departments.
“They are aware these are important tasks. It’s not make-work, it’s not volunteer work. It’s not a handout,” Pelleriti said.
The jobs the interns are training for are important functions inside the hospital, he said. And Pelleriti said the jobs the interns are poised to fill are often high-turnover positions, which if held down for an extended period would save the hospital on replacement costs.
Fasanella said the demand for Project Search internships already is greater than the program can provide and it is likely to grow as more people learn about it. As a result, organizers are hoping to partner with other industries.
To that end, Fasanella said local Project Search organizers are in talks with Embassy Suites. The hotel chain has partnered with Project Search in other cities, she said.