David Thompson is responsible for maintaining the wheelchair supply for outpatient surgery at Springfield Memorial Hospital.
Wrangling the wheelchair supply is sometimes a tedious and complicated process, but Thompson’s supervisor is grateful for the dedication the 18-year-old brings to the job.
“Tracking wheelchairs is an important job in our patient care process because it’s vital that the equipment patients need after surgery is clean and available when they need it,” said Ginny Evans, director of hospitality for Memorial Health. “David has been incredible. He keeps track of the wheelchairs, makes sure they are cleaned and ready to go. If a wheelchair is missing an arm or wheel or needs maintenance, he moves them out of circulation.”
Thompson is one of 12 students from Springfield’s District 186 who are part of Project SEARCH, a transition-to-work program for students with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities. The goal of the program is to help these students obtain competitive employment upon completion of the program.
Launched in 1996 at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Project SEARCH now has more than 600 sites worldwide. The District 186 program is the first in downstate Illinois.
Project SEARCH was five years in the making at District 186, said Raechel Haas, the Project SEARCH lead instructor. The program’s goal is to take older students with disabilities between the ages of 18 and 21 and embed them in jobs throughout the community.
“These are not jobs that have been created specifically for them,” Haas said. “While there may be a few minor accommodations, our students integrate into their assigned work setting for 10-week internships. Then they rotate.”
The partnership with Memorial Health Human Resources was set to launch at Springfield Memorial in early 2020, but was postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
After several pandemic-related delays, Project SEARCH debuted in November 2021. The students attend job-skill classes on-site every morning before they head to work in the emergency department, surgery units, central supply, sterile processing, food and nutrition, environmental services and other areas throughout the hospital.
“Our colleagues have been blown away by their abilities and what they bring to the departments,” said Jay Boulanger, volunteer services coordinator at Springfield Memorial. “It was a time of high stress [during the pandemic], and there was some apprehension initially. It’s been neat to see the transformation on our teams from ‘How is this going to work?’ to ‘This is amazing!’”
Tasks in the Emergency Department can include sanitizing chairs and common areas in the lobby, restocking supplies, stacking warm towels and escorting visitors back to patient rooms. Students who work in main surgery stock ID carts, collect and clean stretchers and retrieve supplies from labs.
Project SEARCH follows the school calendar; the goal is to have all interns placed in a job before the end of May.
“This is really a capstone for the students and their high school career,” Haas said. “This provides a transition for them from school to work. This helps families as well. The feedback from parents has been so positive. These students gain confidence and independence through this experience.”