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St. Paul hospital program trains students with disabilities

May 6, 2019

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Deep in the center core of the surgery department at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul, Chris Tucker walks through rows of shelves filled with surgical supplies.

He’s holding a “pick sheet” of items that will be needed for an upcoming surgery, and he’s on a mission to find a micropuncture introducer set.

“They’re implanting a port-a-cath in a 3-year-old (patient) tomorrow, so we’re getting everything ready ahead of time,” said Tucker, 21, of Minneapolis.

It’s detailed work. Each four-digit code on his sheet corresponds to a cart number, shelf number and location number, he said, and they must match perfectly.

“I have to make sure I get everything. Everything,” said Tucker, dressed in hospital scrubs and wearing a hair net. “In this department, it’s a really big deal. It’s a serious job.”

Tucker, who has autism, is one of seven students interning at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare this school year as part of Project SEARCH, a school-to-work transition program for high school students who have physical or intellectual disabilities.

Project SEARCH is an international program that combines classroom instruction, career exploration and hands-on training through workplace rotations. This is Gillette’s second year participating in the program through a partnership with the White Bear Lake Area Schools; six students graduated last year, Twin Cities Pioneer Press reported.

Unemployment is high among people with intellectual and physical disabilities. Research from the Brookings Institution shows that only 40% of adults with disabilities in their prime working years (ages 25 to 54) have a job, compared with 79% of all prime working-age adults. Employees who have disabilities also face significant gaps in pay and compensation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

On his first day on the eight-week surgery processing rotation, Tucker discovered a Genesis pan without a filter, said Casie Chatterton, a nursing assistant who helps oversee his work.

“His attention to detail is amazing,” Chatterton said. “He catches things that sometimes we don’t. He is so smart and works so hard. He comes in, and he’s ready to go.”

After he places the micropuncture introducer set on his case cart, he moves to the next item on his list: a MicroClave connector. He zips down an aisle, reads the number on the shelf and finds a small blue bin.

“Do your numbers match up?” Chatterton asked.

“B-3300. Yes,” he responded.

“Perfect,” she said.

“I’m good with numbers,” Tucker explained.

Tucker, who is 6 feet 7 inches tall, recently traveled to the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, earning gold medals in shot put and 100-meter run. His relay team earned fourth place.

“I like being challenged by tasks I haven’t done before,” Tucker said. “Working here is something new to me. It gets me out of my comfort zone.”

Chatterton hopes that Tucker might one day be hired permanently at Gillette.

“He can do anything,” she said. “We’ve already said, ‘He has to get a job here because he is so good.’ We’re not letting him go.”

Two graduates of Project SEARCH who interned at Gillette last year were hired by the hospital. Ben Binsfeld, 21, of Vadnais Heights works in rehabilitation therapies; Jordan Vance, 22, of Hugo works in environmental services. The two filled available full-time positions; the hospital is not reimbursed by the state or any other agency for their employment.

On a recent weekday morning, Vance changed the linens on a patient’s bed while the child was at therapy. “You take off the old sheets and blankets and put new ones on each day, so they have a clean, nice bed to sleep on,” she said.

She then emptied garbage cans, mopped the floor and wiped down the bathroom’s fixtures.

“It’s a good job,” she said. “I like the people I work with.”

After almost a year on the job, Vance, who works every other weekend, said she feels confident in her abilities. “Before, I was nervous, but now I’m not,” she said.

Vance was originally assigned to “clean the same six bathrooms every single day,” said Paul Yee, her supervisor. “She always had a positive attitude, and she smiled all the time. I figured she could do more and would want to be challenged to do more things.”

He asked employee Catherine Cappel to mentor Vance. “Cathy took her under her wing and started training her on 4 North, where the longer-term patients stay,” Yee said. “It got to the point where if I asked Jordan to go to any other area of Gillette, she could go there and do the work unsupervised. She’s so eager to please, and she knows that the work is important.”

Because Gillette serves children with developmental and intellectual disabilities, hospital employees understand and appreciate the Project SEARCH interns, said Emily Norton, a special-education teacher for the White Bear Lake Area school district and Gillette’s Project SEARCH teacher.

“I feel like I hit the jackpot,” she said. “Other businesses often don’t have the experience of working with people with disabilities, so there’s that learning curve that happens, where I feel like here, it was just so natural. It just seemed like just the perfect fit.”

Students who have disabilities can receive educational programming through their school district until they turn 21; Project SEARCH is considered a transitional year from school to the workplace, Norton said.

“They’re getting an education, but also on-the-job training,” Norton said. “They’re learning soft skills like teamwork, communicating and problem solving. Problem solving is probably the biggest thing we work on because that’s the piece that might limit them from being independent.”

The interns rotate between 16 departments at Gillette including the pediatric intensive care unit, human resources, respiratory therapies and the orthopedic surgery unit. They spend part of their day in a special classroom working on job skills and training.

Posters on the classroom wall spell out “five points of pride” the interns are expected to encompass each day: punctuality, preparedness, participation, performance and politeness.

“We talk about these a lot,” Norton said. “These just really encompass professionalism. We see a lot of growth through the year. When they’re immersed with professionals, different social skills are being learned. They’re learning responsibility and how much their actions affect others.”

The goal for each intern is integrated competitive employment upon graduation.

Other Project SEARCH sites in Minnesota include the Mayo Clinic, Children’s Hospitals, Medtronic and the state of Minnesota. Katie Raleigh, a skills trainer for Project SEARCH at Gillette, hopes the program continues to expand.

“I have a friend who has a child with special needs, and she said, ‘I just don’t know what’s going to happen after transition school,’” said Raleigh, who lives in Hugo. “This is it. This is what she needs.”

Everyone needs to feel useful and to feel that they are contributing, Raleigh said.

“At the end of the day, we will say, ‘What went well today?’ and their eyes light up,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘Well, this happened,’ or ‘I did this on my own.’ It’s, like, oh my gosh, yes. This is what we’re here for.”

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com