The Riverside County Office of Education (RCOE), in collaboration with multiple community partners, is releasing a new film about a group of students with developmental disabilities who learn valuable job and life skills at Riverside Community Hospital while teaching the staff a few life lessons about determination and success.

Project SEARCH, a collaborative work immersion program for students age 18-22 with developmental disabilities, was first introduced at Riverside Community Hospital in 2009. The innovative program was started 20 years ago by a special education director and an emergency room nurse at Children’s Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio. The program was adopted by the hospital as an opportunity to provide a positive working and learning environment for students with disabilities while providing skill set and job training experience. Project SEARCH now includes nearly 400 programs in 45 states, Canada, England, Ireland, and Scotland.

The goal of Project SEARCH is to provide hands-on, relevant vocational skills for students with significant disabilities that lead to employment after completion. Alongside in-classroom instruction and multiple rotations at the hospital, students are building self-confidence, self-advocacy, interpersonal, and career skills that provide a pathway to a brighter future.

“Project SEARCH is a perfect example of what can happen when outstanding educators and dedicated community partners unify their efforts to ensure that every student has the opportunity to succeed,” said Dr. Judy D. White, Riverside County Superintendent of Schools. “Our Project SEARCH students are exhibiting the grit and determination that all students need to develop in order to reach their individual life and educational goals.”

Graduates from Project SEARCH have a 70% employment rate thanks to additional Project SEARCH partners at the Inland Regional Center and the California Department of Rehabilitation.

“Our role and mission is to work with individuals with disabilities to help them return to the workforce,” said Francine Lau-Knalson, a rehabilitation counselor for the Department of Rehabilitation. She would like to see the program replicated around the county. “Project SEARCH is the role model for schools that can learn and develop their own curriculum to get these students ready for employment.”

A typical day for Project SEARCH students begins with arriving on time at the hospital for in-classroom instruction led by an RCOE teacher and instructional assistants. Students then disperse to one of several work site rotations within the hospital such as Nutritional Services, Environmental Services, the Gastrointestinal Lab, Outpatient Services, and more. While at their work locations, students report to a hospital supervisor and interact with hospital employees and even patients from time to time.

Beyond preparing meals, sterilizing equipment, and vacuuming floors, Project SEARCH students are having an impact on hospital staff every single day.

“Our students amaze me,” added Chekesha Culbertson, a hospital nursing staff manager. “They’ve adapted to every situation we have tasked for them and are a blessing to our department.”

“From a morale perspective, working with Project SEARCH students helps our employees stay grounded and think outside of ourselves and our daily routine,” said Tammy Kaminski, Vice President of Human Resources at Riverside Community Hospital.

Project SEARCH teacher, Susan Ream, said the students’ interaction with staff is just as important as learning the technical skills.

“With time and training, students can learn the vocational tasks,” Ream said. “But it’s the social and communication aspects of Project SEARCH that are often the most difficult for students, and the most important for future employability and to participate fully in the community.”

After her time as a Project SEARCH student, Irena Rose Coronado was hired by the hospital in July 2011 to work in the hospital’s nutritional services area. For her job, Irena scans orders, and interacts with patients while ensuring they receive the correct food deliveries. She has big goals.

“I want to be an X-ray tech or a SPD (sterile processing department) tech so I can learn more things and help patients who are sick,” she said. “I try to make patients feel excellent so that they are happy and smiling. I’ve been here for five years and I hope to be here for 60 more years. I’m thankful for Project SEARCH and everything they have done to help me.”

Melissa White has been a Project SEARCH student for nearly two years and enjoys meeting new people and helping out at the hospital. She also is determined to reach her goals. “If it wasn’t for Project SEARCH, I’d probably be at home eating Hot Cheetos, sitting on the couch, watching cartoons, and playing video games,” she said. “I want to become a teacher’s assistant and work with kids, and being in this program helps me be more responsible, flexible, independent, and reliable.”

The Project SEARCH video is available at RCOE or by visiting the RCOE YouTube channel.

Riverside County Office of Education (RCOE)

The Riverside County Office of Education (RCOE) is a service agency supporting the county’s 23 school districts that serve 430,000 students—more than the student population of 17 states. RCOE services include administrative support to districts, programs for preschool, special education, pregnant minors, correctional, migrant and vocational students. In addition, the organization provides professional training, support and resources for more than 18,000 teachers, administrators and staff throughout the 7,000 square miles of Riverside County. Learn more at RCOE.

About Riverside Community Hospital

Riverside Community Hospital has been serving the Southern California community for over 110 years with a staff of over 2,000 employees, 500 physicians and over 200 specialties. Through their passion of providing the most comprehensive, quality healthcare and commitment in investing in the latest technologic advances in medicine, Riverside Community Hospital has been recognized as a Top Performing Hospital on Key Quality Measures for three consecutive years in a row by The Joint Commission.

RCH houses one of the largest Emergency Room and Trauma Center in the Inland Empire at 50 treatment rooms. RCH is the largest STEMI (heart attack) receiving center and is a fully accredited Chest Pain Center. Specialty services include the HeartCare Institute, offering invasive and non-invasive cardiac procedures, Center of Excellence for Surgical Weight Loss, the Transplant Program, the Cancer Center and a Level II Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Riverside Community Hospital is also committed to training the next generation of physicians through its Graduate Medical Education program.