Wonderful things are happening in the lives of some young adults interning at Baptist DeSoto this year. Heather Denley, DeSoto County Schools instructor with Project SEARCH, works with two job trainers from the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitative Services (MDRS) at Baptist DeSoto to train six interns with significant cognitive disabilities for employment opportunities. The interns are special education students at DeSoto County Schools between the ages of 18 and 21 who have completed their senior year of high school.
Project SEARCH is a national transition model that helps prepare young adult students with significant disabilities to find employment with skills training, career exploration, continuous feedback and coaching. MDRS funds the program in Mississippi.
Baptist North Mississippi, Mississippi Baptist Medical Center and Baptist Attala also host Project SEARCH interns.
This is the second year Baptist DeSoto has participated in Project SEARCH. The first year, the hospital hosted two interns, who both found employment at the hospital at the end of the program. One of the former interns now works in the Emergency Department and another in Food and Nutrition. Next year, Baptist DeSoto expects to host up to 12 interns.
While none of the interns at Baptist DeSoto this year have physical disabilities, Heather explained the program also welcomes students with physical disabilities and will make accommodations to help them.
“Heather and her team are highly proficient in training these interns. They have an impressive command over their trade, and it shows. They’re doing all the legwork in this partnership. We’re extremely grateful for them,” said Baptist DeSoto Administrative Director Kevin Redd.
The interns follow the DeSoto County Schools’ calendar. They begin with three weeks of training before starting their internships. The interns then complete three 10-week rotations in different hospital departments with an hour of classroom time each morning for learning employability skills, employment technology, health and wellness, safety in the workplace, financial literacy, social communication, social skills and advocacy.
Heather said, “They’re capable of so much, and there’s not a department in this hospital that has hosted an intern that has not been touched by them. They beg for them; they ask for them back. I’m asked several times a week, ‘Can you come see my department? We’d love to have an intern!’”
With thorough hands-on training, the interns in these community-based classrooms learn the skills to be successful in entry-level work. During their internships, the students work in departments or areas such as Sterile Processing, Surgery, Admissions, Cardiac Rehab, Inpatient Rehab, Food and Nutrition, Materials Management and the Women’s Center.
“We always get a lot of interest from the staff in having the interns participate in their departments, and they put a smile on your face,” said Baptist DeSoto Director of Human Resources Karen Ingram.
One example of a rotation an intern may complete is in Food and Nutrition, filling the role of stocking. Interns may also make sandwiches, wrap them, date them appropriately, rotate them and restock them. They learn how to prep their workstations; sanitize and scrub in; and wear gloves, masks and hairnets.
Heather said the hospital has so many different departments, it’s easy to find a fit with the interests of the interns, and interns can take the skills they learn at the hospital and find jobs in their communities.
“They can learn these entry-level jobs and be great at them and be very fulfilled and make a difference in the workplace. It just takes a little extra time for them to be taught. We teach them the skills and help them build a resume and find employment in their area of interest,” said Heather.
Heather explained that Project SEARCH is important because statistics show a student with a significant cognitive disability who leaves high school with no plans is at greater risk of experiencing drastic declines in their mental health within four years of graduation.
The program helps interns gain employment skills, but it also helps them with social skills that carry over into other areas of their lives.
“The feedback we get from parents is typically crying. Happy tears. We hear a lot of things like, ‘It’s been life-changing.’ They can’t believe the progress their child has made being put in a setting like this. The social skills they are gaining here show in other areas of their lives,” noted Heather.
Heather said she really appreciates the involvement the team has from the administration at Baptist DeSoto, including help from Kevin, who puts her in contact with managers and directors and shows her the different areas of the hospital where it may be beneficial for interns to work.
“It is true they really are living in the mission of healing, teaching and preaching here. All the staff have taken to teaching these students, mentoring them, teaching me and my job skills trainers. Brian Hogan, the CEO, knows all our interns by name. He knows their parents, he knows what they like, where they’re working. We’ve had an overwhelming response from Baptist.”
Heather believes the program is going to change the outlook on people with significant disabilities in the workplace.
“We don’t see people with significant disabilities a lot right now in the workplace where we live. And these kids deserve that. If you came and got to meet them, you’d never want to leave. They’re hilarious. They’re smart. They’re funny,” said Heather.