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Finding their place
Young adults transition to independence through job security
It is lunchtime in the middle of the week, and a handful of Anchorage young adults gathers at Providence Alaska Medical Center’s cafeteria. While their peers are likely doing the same thing at high schools around town, these 18- to 22-year‑olds have the workplace as their classroom.
Modeled after a program that started at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, Anchorage’s Project SEARCH pairs students who have significant disabilities – including hearing or vision loss, autism, developmental delays, traumatic brain injuries or physical impairments, among others – with job rotations that allow them to pursue their interests as they work toward becoming independent adults.
The program genuinely reflects a key part of the Mission of the Sisters of Providence – to serve the vulnerable.
“We are not numbers-driven as much as we are mission-driven,” says Kathleen Barrows, Providence’s director of Mission Services. “In the end, these young people have found their place; they have gained their confidence.”
Providence is in its third year of hosting Project SEARCH, which Barrows says depends on collaboration among education, business and vocational rehabilitation organizations for its success. Each year, seven to eight students are selected from the Anchorage School District’s Alternative Career Education program to take part. They choose three different job rotations during their academic year. Like other high-schoolers, they attend class in the morning to receive instruction. From there, though, their classroom becomes the workplace. From 9 a.m. until 2 p.m., the students report to their jobs across the hospital – in Medical Records, Food Services, Day Surgery, Sleep Center, Radiology, General Stores and more. There they perform a variety of duties, from delivering mail to preparing food to inventory control and filing.
Providence supports the program not through a particular dollar amount, rather through the time it takes the various departments to plan, hire and work with the young adults as they learn to become independent.
“We treat them just as we do any other employee,” Barrows says. “We are preparing them for competitive, long-term employment.”
After finishing her short lunch break, Project SEARCH intern Ashley Pinkston reports to Providence’s Nursing Boutique, a small shop that sells nursing supplies and provides instruction and encouragement to new mothers. Carrying a clipboard with her job duties attached, Pinkston stays busy in the supply room, double-checking inventory and sorting stock on the shelves for purchase.
“I make sure the supplies are stocked up, and sometimes they’ll get new items and I’ll price them,” Pinkston says. “I stay busy, but sometimes when I run out of things to do, I go and get the mail for them. That is one of my favorite things to do.”
Tammy Tucker, Pinkston’s supervisor, says the tasks may seem like busy work, but they truly help the boutique run more smoothly.
“There’s a lot of little things throughout the day that need to get done, and when we are busy with patients and clients, having somebody like Ashley is so helpful,” Tucker says. “It’s good for them, too, because they learn computer skills and filing skills and work that will help them as adults.
“They’ve kind of become our family, and we maintain ties,” she adds. “They are fun and excited to be here, and it’s as great for us as it is for them.”
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