MASON CITY – Alecia Balduf, a senior at Mason City High School, simply loves her new job at Mercy Medical Center – North Iowa.
While the internship will help her fulfil graduation requirements, it means so much more to her. “It makes me happy,” she said. Anna Lisa Sampson agrees and loves her job at Mercy – North Iowa as well. Sampson is excited to be an important part of the team disinfecting surgical supplies. When asked how she likes operating a large, elevator-sized, disinfecting machine “I love it!”
Sampson and Balduf are two of six people beginning three 10 to 11-week unpaid internships in one of six various departments at Mercy – North Iowa from September 1 – June 1, 2012. The internship was arranged through Project SEARCH North Iowa, a program that provides education and training to young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities through an innovative workforce and career development model.
“The primary goal of Project SEARCH North Iowa is for high school seniors and recent graduates to acquire competitive, marketable and transferable skills to enable them to apply for related positions. The interns also build communication, teamwork and problem-solving skills that are important to their overall development as a young worker,” said Sherry Becker, Executive Director, NIVC Services.
The partnership between Project SEARCH, NIVC Services, local agencies, and Mercy – North Iowa is among the first for Iowa hospitals, but not unique in healthcare as other hospitals around the nation have participated in the program. In fact the program originated at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Other businesses and manufactures have since adopted the program and now there are more than 200 Project SEARCH sites across 39 states and four countries.
Working from a task list, students work approximately five-hours a day, five days a week to acquire the core skills necessary for gainful employment. Job coaches and department staff collaborate to provide support for students. The Project SEARCH staff delivers the training as well as develop job accommodations and standard work procedures. Once the students master the core skills, additional skills can be layered to improve their marketability.
“Alecia has already changed. She senses how important work is at Mercy. She is up early every day, wearing her Project SEARCH polo and khaki slacks,” said her mother, Lisa Yunek. “It is like a switch was flipped and she took two giant steps forward in independence.”
Balduf packs her own lunch, packs her cell phone for after work and urges her mother to get going well before 8:00 a.m. “Class starts at 8:30!” Yunek said.
But Balduf and her intern-colleagues are not the only ones who Project SEARCH coordinators wish to change.
“We know that the presence of programs like Project SEARCH North Iowa can bring change in business culture and have a positive effect on attitudes about hiring people with disabilities,” said Jackie Luecht, Director, Human Resources.
At Mercy – North Iowa, those who the interns are working for also are thrilled for the help to fill important roles.
“We are so excited to have Project SEARCH interns. We know it will be a success because we will make it a success,” said Stephanie Harmon, Manager, The Willows.
Potential student worksites are identified through a continuous process involving the teacher, job coaches and business liaison. The internships are for entry-level positions and are supported by Mason City Community Schools, Iowa Vocational Rehabilitation Services, AEA267, NIVC Services, and Cerro Gordo County Social Services & Case Management. The start-up was made possible by a Venture Grant from United Way of North Central Iowa. The Venture Grant program through United Way provides a means to encourage the development of new programs such as Project SEARCH in north central Iowa. The objective of Project SEARCH directly aligns with United Way’s mission to promote financial stability and independence. The hope is that Project SEARCH participants will gain the resources and skills to become employed. Other first-year costs are supported by Principal Financial Group, Alliant Energy Foundation, First Citizen’s National Bank Foundation and TeamQuest Foundation.
“We feel very fortunate to have this opportunity,” Luecht said.