- Associated Press - Monday, November 24, 2014

BURLINGTON, N.C. (AP) - When patients move in and out of cardiology at Alamance Regional Medical Center, Jason Roby steps in.

“I clean up the room for the next patient to come into the room,” said Roby, 19. “Some days it gets busy.”

Roby is a student at Western Alamance High School in the exceptional children’s program. Now, he is also an intern at ARMC with Project Search.

Project Search started in 1996 at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center to help students with special needs build job skills and transition into work and independent living. Since then it has spread around the country and the world as a trademarked and licensed program. This is its first year in Alamance County, and Roby is one of the first five interns to go through it.

“It’s designed for around eight, but we knew in the first years we needed to select students who were going to be successful,” said Allen Murray, executive director of the exceptional children’s program at the Alamance-Burlington School System. “I think next year we’ll literally have twice as many students.”

Trying to get students with special needs into the workforce is not a new thing, but this is a lot more structured than most efforts Murray has seen, and all the agencies working together means the program will continue bringing in new students and keeping track of the ones who have been through it.

“There may have been a really skilled and dedicated (vocational rehabilitation) worker that knew this student with a disability and thought, ‘I can get this kid a job,’ or there may have been a teacher,” Murray said, “but this is more of an interagency collaborative effort that should have better sustainability.”

Dustin Tulloch, 20, a student from Southern Alamance High School, is working in three departments at ARMC. This is not his first job - he had a work study at a grocery store - but this has been better for him because his teacher, LeAnn Wooten, and job coach help him establish his routine and understand what is expected of him before leaving him to work independently.

“I’ve been around a lot of places,” Tulloch said. “It’s easier for me. The teacher helps me a lot.”

The program started in a hospital, but it can be done in a lot of settings, Murray said. Hospitals are ideal because there are so many different jobs to do from kitchen to clerical work. A hospital is like a small city, said Vivian Langley, executive director for integration at ARMC, and the interns can do a variety of different jobs over the course of the school year.

“These students, even with the disabilities that they have, can learn to do the task in the same way every time,” Murray said, “That’s why a hospital is a perfect setting for Project Search because there are a number of jobs that have to follow a very set specific routine, and most of these interns are very skilled at picking up on a routine and following it and doing it the same way every time, things like room turnover or filling orders out of the supply closet.”

Teachers can break those jobs down into individual tasks and help the interns establish a routine.

“For us, for vocational rehab, it’s about breaking down stereotypes that people with disabilities cannot be productive, because they want to be productive, and they are showing that they can be productive,” said Rebecca Parks, unit manager with N.C. Vocational Rehabilitation Services.

Roby’s supervisor in cardiology, Mary Godley, said he takes the work very seriously.

“As soon as he sees a patient leaving, he’s ready,” Godley said. “He knows what he’s doing.”

A $15,000 GRANT from the N.C. Council on Developmental Disabilities got the project going, said April Brantley, exceptional children’s project specialist at ABSS. It paid for training and coaching from the national Project Search program.

Once it’s underway, the school district will provide a teacher and job coach - who would be working at a school if they were not at the hospital, Murray said. Vocational rehabilitation pays for the Cape Fear Vocational Rehabilitation job coach with state dollars, and the hospital provides the location and someone to work with Wooten.

“It’s really not new money as much as it’s coordinating the efforts and putting them out in the real world,” Murray said.

This is a big operation with five organizations behind it. There is the school system, the hospital, Vocational Rehabilitation - a state agency - Cape Fear Vocational Rehabilitation - a nonprofit - and Cardinal Innovations - the giant managed care agency that handles Medicaid-funded mental health care in North Carolina.

Cardinal Innovations will be a big part of keeping track of these interns once they are out of high school.

There is no guarantee they will be working at ARMC at the end of this, though when jobs come open, they do know people. Dzenita Blackwell, job coach with Cape Fear Vocational Services, said coaches will be looking for jobs in the community that will fit the interns, and there will be job coaches working with the students long-term.

“The goal is not for them to have employment at ARMC,” Murray said. “The goal is for them to have the skills they will need.”

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Information from: Times-News, http://www.thetimesnews.com

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