Sunday, March 21, 2010

Project Search

One of the women I met at this year's Transition Forum is Erin Riehle. About 15 years ago, this pioneer heeded a 1995 statement adopted by the American College of Healthcare Executives that reads, in part, " executives must take the lead in their organizations to increase employment opportunities for qualified persons with disabilities and to advocate on behalf of their employment to other organizations in their communities." Thus began Project Search, a transition program for high school students with significant disabilities that totally immerses the students into the world of work. The first program began at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

In what Erin describes as an "Ah-ha" moment, she recognized that more than 50 percent of the revenue for her hospital's emergency department came from providing care for people with disabilities. Yet, no emergency department employee had a significant disability. She also began thinking about the fact that her hospital had a 40 percent turnover rate of its employees; many employees do not like repetitive-type work, which is what a lot of entry-level positions entail, or those newly hired use entry-level positions to gain a foothold into working for the hospital. She realized that with proper training, people with significant disabilities can do complex, systematic jobs.

Erin began the training program, a one-year internship program for students with significant disabilities who want to work. Once accepted into Project Search, the students no longer attend their high schools. Their schooling takes place at the business setting and the students become interns. The year provides the opportunity for them to complete three 12-week rotations within the business.

During the internships, the students learn employment skills, independent living skills, and the culture of the business. They spend the rest of their day performing their rotations and they meet at the end of the day for individual feedback. Many of the interns require accommodations, includng picture checklists, but they are expected to perform their duties and abide by all policies of the business just as any employee must.

The Project Search Model has proven to be so successful that industries outside the healthcare field are replicating the model, including Medtronics, a company that produces medical devices, and Raytheon, a company that manufactures rockets, and banks. The federal government has at least one program up and running in Washington, D.C., and three more will begin in the city this fall. You'll find Project Search in Australia and the United Kingdom, too.

Several health systems in Virginia have embraced Project Search. Sentara has one program in Hampton and will start a program in Williamsburg in the fall. The Virginia Commonwealth University Health Service has a program at St. Mary's, a Bons Secours hospital, and plans to open several more soon. The Carillon Hospital System in Roanoke also will start a program this fall.

I am lobbying to start Project Search at the Riverside Tappahannock Hospital. I would like to be the classroom teacher. I have an extensive work history in the healthcare industry, including working as the public relations associate at Virginia Beach General Hospital when it was part of Tidewater Healthcare Inc., before it aligned with the Sentara Health System. I have a strong business background, and I am passionate about helping students transition from high school to adulthood.

Erin says from conception to launching a Project Search site is a two-year process. Fortunately, our clock has started ticking. I have spoken with several colleagues in the Tappahannock area and all are on board. We just have to get THE key players to give the green light: the executives with the Riverside Health System and the local school small feat. I'm up to the challenge, and so is Erin. The target date is August 2012!

1 comment:

  1. I thought you might be interested in seeing my daughter's blog, 'Daniela's Journey to Independence" at

    I found your blog by googling Project Search, something I just heard about through my daughter's former job coach at Gloucester High School. I work for Sentara here in Gloucester and had not heard about it, surprisingly.

    Great to hear about your web-site . I'll include a link to it on Daniela's blog. Best Wishes!

    Christina Goldstone