For many young people in search of their first job, all they really want is an opportunity – a chance to prove themselves. That’s especially true for those with disabilities. So, through a partnership with a local school system, Cartersville Medical Center is helping these could-be employees get their foot in the door.

The HCA Healthcare affiliate in Northwest Georgia is in its fifth year of Project SEARCH – an employment training program first launched in 1996 at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, where young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities could learn relevant job skills.

Cartersville Medical has six interns this year, ranging in age from 18 to 22 and with disabilities like autism, cerebral palsy and learning disorders. During a 10-week rotation, the trainees gain experience in:

  • Pre/Post-Op
  • Maternity
  • Central Sterile
  • Food and Nutrition Services
  • Occupational Medicine
  • Emergency Department, and
  • Radiation Oncology

“Hospitals are like little cities – that’s why it works so well for a program like Project SEARCH,” said Kristy Mitchell, a special education teacher who acts as the program coordinator for the interns. “We can find jobs in different areas of the hospital where our students can develop their skills and go on to find meaningful employment in the community.”

In order to qualify for the program, students, who, due to special needs can stay in school until they are 22, have to complete their high school requirements and then be willing to work for four hours a day.

Each day starts with two hours in the classroom, focusing on social skills, body language, resume building and mock interviews, for instance.  Then the interns head off to their departments.

Kristy, who affectionately calls the interns “my kids,” talks about a young lady who was placed in the hospital’s central sterile unit – a group that cleans, preps, processes, stores and issues medical/surgical supplies and equipment for patient care – and has thrived.

“She gets there every day, wears her scrubs and wants to learn more of the medical side,” she explained, “so they gave her a tray and had her take the instruments out and match them. For some of my kids, that’s really hard, but she has already started putting trays together.” hca

“People are nervous at first because it’s a program for individuals with disabilities, and they’re not sure what to expect,” Kristy explained. “But once we get in there, they see that they’re really just young adults and they’re like any other new employee.”

Jan Tidwell, the recently named chief nursing executive at Cartersville Medical and native of the community, sees the positive impact this program has had in people’s lives.

“These young people are so happy to work, to serve and just to be here at Cartersville Medical Center,” the hospital nurse leader said. “They really make a difference in our department and have lifted everyone’s spirits.”

Many departments at Cartersville Medical have volunteered to try an intern, says Kristy. The “Cartersville Six” has done everything from stocking patient rooms to assembling treadmills for the cardiac department to dishwashing and preparing food in the cafeteria and much more.

“The first couple of months, I have parents saying, ‘they come home every day and take a nap,’” Kristy says, laughing. “I say, ‘that’s normal.’”

An average of 85 percent of the Project SEARCH interns who come through Cartersville Medical Center find employment each year. Kristy says that three interns have even gone on to become Certified Nursing Assistants.

“Cartersville Medical has been great to us. It’s neat to see people come to me now and say, ‘can I get an intern?’” Kristy said. “It’s a win-win for the hospital and, obviously, for our kids. Once they’re treated like everyone else, and given a chance, they blossom.”

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Intern Desiree scans information onto the computer in the radiation oncology office.

Intern Dacota cleans the waiting room at occupational medicine.

Intern Brettany stocks supplies in outpatient surgery, makes beds and moves the beds from recovery back into patient rooms.

Intern Tony stocks all rooms in the emergency department. 

Intern Ben puts together the new treadmill in the cardiac rehab office.

Kristy Mitchell (far right) is all smiles with her interns at Cartersville Medical Center. 

The Project SEARCH program at Cartersville Medical Center, an affiliate of HCA Healthcare, was featured in the Atlanta Journal Constitution here. Visit here for more information about Project SEARCH.