Pictured, from left: Justin Micheal (intern), Ben Chicchi (intern), Richard Pellegrino (COO), Jules Heldreth (intern), Colleen Sybert (VP of human resources) and Garritt Neel (intern).

Image courtesy of WVU Medicine

West Virginia University (WVU) Medicine’s J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, W. Va., recently introduced its second cohort of youth interns with disabilities participating in Project SEARCH, an international transition initiative that since 2010 has involved over 30,000 young adults who engage in a nine-month nonpaid internship training program. 

The program’s goal is to immerse these interns in various workplaces, including health care environments, to improve their employability and marketable work skills. To reach that goal, the program provides real-life work experience combined with training in employability and independent-living skills to help young people with disabilities make successful transitions to productive adult lives.

“It’s significant that the second cohort of interns has been welcomed at Ruby Memorial Hospital during a pandemic,” says Nick Lafferty, Project SEARCH instructor for volunteer services at WVU Medicine. “The first class of interns graduated from the program during the beginning of the pandemic, and three of the five original interns are now current employees of WVU Medicine. 

“Being that we are the only Project SEARCH-participating organization in West Virginia, hosting a second year, despite significant obstacles, is nothing short of a miracle,” adds Lafferty. “The support and passion for the program, shared by those at the national level and by stakeholders here at the hospital, made it possible to continue the mission for year two and beyond.”

Currently, the hospital is working with five Project SEARCH interns, including one who was selected to train with the facilities department.

“This intern was able to experience all of the teams within Ruby Memorial’s facilities department,” Lafferty says. “He did everything from rounding, where he checked equipment and services to ensure they were functioning properly, to carrying out basic repairs, painting and repairing drywall. He learned how to use a walkie-talkie, a work tablet and the tools necessary to complete his task.”

Lafferty says other health care organizations can learn from WVU Medicine’s embrace of Project SEARCH and commitment to its interns.

“These interns can add value not only to the work they accomplish while learning, but to the community at large,” he says. “This program shows that people of all abilities can work and get the job done.”

Project SEARCH has grown from one original program site at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to more than 650 programs across 48 states and 10 countries. Participating health care organizations include Kaiser Permanente medical facilities, the National Institutes of Health, Cleveland Clinic and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.