It was a bad day for news, Marie Zappone and her four fellow job interns at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center discovered as they scoured Internet news sites on Tuesday for topical conversation starters for the day. Another bombing in Iraq. A child murder trial.
"Some news stories are too depressing," Zappone concluded, deciding to go with something more uplifting. "So how was your holiday? Did you see any fireworks?" she asked a stranger brightly.
Zappone and her fellow interns at the hospital are adults with developmental disabilities, coping with disorders that range from autism to intellectual disabilities. Placed in specific jobs at the hospital to build their skills through a six-month training program, they are also learning the art of making small talk with patients, hospital visitors, co-workers, supervisors and the medical staff, among other workplace skills that most of us take for granted.
The stakes are high for these motivated, conscientious young adults. The pilot program they’re enrolled in, Project SEARCH, could be their best chance to find an employer and secure a career, a paycheck and an independent life. The program is run by PathPoint — a national nonprofit organization established in 1964 and dedicated to helping people with disabilities or disadvantages reach their fullest potential — with a grant from the California Department of Rehabilitation, partnering with Pathway-UCLA Extension and Westside Regional Center. In California alone, PathPoint has served more than 2,000 adults every year with developmental disabilities, helping them live and work as valued members of our communities.
Marie Zappone, serving an internship as a labeling technician at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, inventories hundreds of packaged medical catheters and other equipment. She hopes that her six-month training will lead to a real job somewhere.
The Reagan UCLA Medical Center became the first to host Project SEARCH in Los Angeles County when a pilot program launched here in July 2010, with four interns and two fulltime job coaches. Since then, three other work sites have been added: Adults with developmental disabilities served by PathPoint are now learning clerical skills at the Los Angeles Superior Court in Alhambra, Long Beach and Monterey Park. At the medical center, the program is expanding, with eight new interns starting this month and continuing for one year.
"It’s really been an amazing partnership," said Robin Clayton, senior recruiter for UCLA Health Systems. "We love this program. It’s affected everyone who has met these young people, no matter how minimal their involvement with the program." And while the interns have benefited from the intensive training, the medical staff members have also gained something, she said.
"Supervisors have described how these students have touched their lives. We think this program really mirrors what UCLA is all about," Clayton said. "It’s the collaboration with community-based nonprofit organizations like PathPoint that makes UCLA great."
Working closely with job coaches who give them continual feedback, the interns work three different jobs for two months each. In the hospital cafeteria, Zappore kept displays of food items well-stocked and condiments readily available. As a patient escort, she helped transport discharged patients in wheelchairs out to waiting cars. Now on the last job of her internship, Zappone, given the title of labeling technician, pores over multiple lists of packaged medical supplies, matching SKU numbers to the hundreds of items that hang in large supply carts. The list she will compile of hundreds of angiographic catheters and other surgical and diagnostic equipment will help the medical staff find them quicker.
Job intern Max Masius collects recyclables from bins on the grounds of the hospital and on every floor. His job coach, Remy Abraham, checks in with him throughout the work day and gives him continual feedback.
"Sometimes they think that I’m a nurse, and they stop and say, ‘Good job!’" said Zappone, smiling proudly.
But job skills are only part of what the interns acquire. In the state-of-the-art hospital, they learn what the hospital emergency codes mean, how to operate a fire extinguisher and how to find their way to any unit where they are needed.
"When I first came to this place," recalled Adam Burg, working a rotation as a patient escort, "it was like being in a maze at a carnival. Now it’s familiar territory. It’s fun. You get to meet a lot of people."
Adam Burg trains as a patient escort and makes sure they get a smooth ride to waiting cars when they leave the hospital.
In class sessions that bracket their workday, the trainees also become skilled at making good first impressions, at handling job stress, dealing with coworkers and bosses they might not get along with, reacting to workplace gossip, keeping out of someone’s personal space, reading facial expressions and, an all-important skill, asking a supervisor questions without fear.
"Before I came here, I wasn’t good at talking to people," Zappone admitted. "And now I can. If I have questions, I’m not afraid to ask. I can talk for myself," she said, beaming with self-assurance.
To mirror the work world, each job the interns take on begins with a formal job application, job interview and thank-you cards, then ends with a resignation letter and exit interview, said project manager Lital Kessler, who graduated with a psychology degree from UCLA and now oversees PathPoint - Project SEARCH in Los Angeles County.
"What they want is a real job," said PathPoint job coach Remy Abraham. "So they try to do their very best. I really see it every day."
While it may take an employee with developmental disabilities longer to learn a skill at work, Kessler said, once they learn it, it stays with them. And studies show they are highly reliable, show up on time and stick with a job longer, she said. "They don’t burn out as quickly."
That’s a win for employers and supervisors like Lionel Graham, a manager in the Materials Management Department, one of the first hospital departments to take on a Project SEARCH intern last year. The department benefited so much from the interns’ work that they decided to create a part-time position and hired a former Project SEARCH intern, Corinna Hitchman.
Now a storekeeper and an official UCLA employee since April, Hitchman logs in and delivers the many UPS and FedEx boxes, important documents, scanned images, test specimens and mail packages that arrive at her basement office on their way to clinical labs, patients and medical staff all over the hospital and the UCLA Medical Plaza.
"It’s been very helpful," said Graham of the department’s participation in Project SEARCH. "It supports a very important need that we have. We get quite a few important packages and documents that have to go up to the patient corridors, to doctors and labs. So it’s been great to have her here. "
Lionel Graham, a manager at the hospital, supervises the work of Corinna Hitchman, a graduate of the Project SEARCH trainee program. His department, Materials Management, was the first to open up an internship for an adult with developmental disabilities.
Michael Baca, department director, agreed. "She does a good job in maintaining the same standards that our other employees do. Initially, this started out as a job to teach these young people certain skills. But we all started to see that there was a great need for someone in our department to fulfill this role. And we have a responsibility to help the community as well. It’s important for us and for them."
Hitchman couldn’t be happier. Living in an apartment with a roommate just off campus, she is now earning a paycheck for the first time and enjoys getting to know the hospital environment, "making new friends and getting along with my coworkers," she said. PathPoint, under a different program, provides her with a job coach whose support will gradually fade over time until Hitchman is completely on her own.