Note: This story appears in the Sunday, Oct. 13 newspaper on Page A1. 

Visitors of OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital in Athens may have noticed a new type of intern working there over the past year.

These are students who otherwise would have graduated with their class last year, but are taking a “fifth year” to study at the hospital.

The program is known as Project SEARCH and provides a year-long internship experience for students in the eight “feeder” schools of the Tri-County Career Center. These students are eligible for Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities, which is also a partner in the program. The program is meant to give training and workplace experience at the hospital for students with disabilities.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

Right now, there are four such students at O’Bleness and the program also is implemented in four other OhioHealth hospitals. Program administrators in Athens are looking to expand the program further. Currently, 15 internship “sites” have been developed within the O’Bleness program across various departments in the hospital. Every 10 weeks, the interns move to another site.

During the entry process for the program, students are given a chance to meet with the department managers at the hospital, who test them to see how well they would fit. For example, a student interviewing for the culinary department would need to demonstrate the ability to clean surfaces, and a student interviewing for the maintenance department might be asked to thread nuts on bolts or identify tools.

Students are placed in sites that they are most interested in whenever possible.

Each morning, students spend time working on skills such as budgeting, team building and health and wellness. The goal is to teach the students a range of skills so as to help them start a career. In the spring, the students will be given opportunities to apply for jobs, write resumes and more — all aided by Project SEARCH’s teachers and trainers.

One Project SEARCH alumnus has found permanent employment at the hospital. Zach Bennet was hired in March to work in the Environmental Services department, which handles turning over rooms and other aspects of the hospital environment. Bennett has described the program as being an “amazing” opportunity and thanked those at the hospital for being “helpful and supportive.

Kelly Smith instructs Project SEARCH, guiding students in morning classroom activities and then helping out when needed in the afternoon as they work in their respective departments.

She noted that participants are embraced by the hospital staff and often hears positive stories from employees throughout the building.

The students are so well loved that the last year’s graduate of the program had over 50 staff members turn out for the informal graduation Smith hosted.

Each student has found a way to fit in, and are currently all placed in different departments. One of the students, Dominick Rager, said he has been enjoying his first placement in the facilities department.

Rager noted that he enjoys the work assigned to him, and Smith said that if he requests to do so, she may allow him to stay in the department for an additional five weeks.

“I’ve learned how to use all these different tools,” he said. “I love just doing work. It’s fun.”

An open house to learn about the program is scheduled for Oct. 28 from 9:30-11:30 a.m. at the hospital. For more information, call Kelly Smith at 740-592-7002.

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