Innovative Collaboration Touches Lives at Springfield Memorial Hospital

In the midst of a pandemic, Project SEARCH placed older students with disabilities as workers in the heart of Springfield Memorial Hospital (SMH). The results have been stunning.

“Our colleagues have been blown away by their abilities and what they bring to the departments,” said Jay Boulanger, volunteer services coordinator at SMH. “It was a time of high stress, and there was some apprehension initially. It’s been neat to see the transformation on our teams from ‘how is this going to work?’ to ‘this is amazing!’”

Project SEARCH was five years in the making at Springfield School District 186, said Raechel Haas, the Project SEARCH lead instructor. The goal was to take older students with disabilities between the ages of 18 and 21 and embed them in jobs throughout the community.

Excitement built as a partnership with Memorial Health Human Resources meant the program was set to launch at SMH in early 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced an unwelcome halt.

After several pandemic-related delays, Project SEARCH finally debuted in November of 2021. Twelve students attend job skill classes on-site every morning before they head to work in the Emergency Department, surgery units, central supply, sterile processing, food and nutrition, environmental services and other areas throughout the hospital.

“Nothing has been created specifically for them,” Haas said. “While there may be a few minor accommodations, they integrate right into their assigned work setting for ten-week internships. Then they rotate.”

Tasks in the ED can include sanitizing chairs and common areas in the lobby, restocking supplies, stacking warm towels and escorting visitors back to patient rooms. Students who work in main surgery stock ID carts, collect and clean stretchers, retrieve supplies from labs.

David Thompson, 18, works in volunteer services and is responsible for maintaining the wheelchair supply for outpatient surgery. His supervisor is grateful for his dedication to managing the sometimes tedious and complicated process of wrangling the wheelchair supply.

“Tracking wheelchairs makes a huge difference for our outpatients when the equipment they need after surgery is clean and available when they need it,” said Ginny Evans, director of hospitality for Memorial Health. “David has been absolutely incredible. He keeps track of the wheelchairs, makes sure they are cleaned and ready to go. If a wheelchair is missing an arm or wheel or just needs maintenance, he moves them out of circulation.”

Project SEARCH follows the school calendar, and the goal is to have all interns placed in a job prior to end of May.

“This is really a capstone for the students and their high school career,” Haas said. “This provides a transition for them from school to work. This helps families as well. The feedback from parents has been so positive. These students gain confidence and independence through this experience.”