Kelsey Williams works in environmental services, where she helps with the laundry.
Kelsey Williams works in environmental services, where she helps with the laundry. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

In the hospital supply room, Ricardo Thomas checks his list against the boxes he has put on a cart to take to an operating area, making sure he has it right.

"You look at the stock number and you will know — so you don't get mixed up," Thomas says, pointing to the number on the form and then the number on the carton. "Right there is the stock number." He double-checks to make sure the form and carton list the same materials.


"I sign out the orders, and I take them where they have to go," Thomas says.

The 20-year-old Crofton man is among nine intellectually and students with developmental disabilities with internships at Anne Arundel Medical Center. The supply room is the first of three hospital locations — he'll spend 10 weeks in each — where Thomas will learn a job in a program that is helping him navigate the shift from school to the working world. He acknowledges that he had some trouble learning all the parts of the job, but his instructor — who is from the Hannah More School, which works with students with certain disabilities — has been helping him.

The Annapolis hospital is the first employer in the county to take part in Project Search, a nationwide program begun more than a decade ago at a Cincinnati hospital.

The goal is to train people with disabilities — those who can work fairly independently — for jobs that make them part of a larger staff by immersing them in a few positions and providing support while they learn.

"We focus on what they can do and what they are good at," says Rebecca White of the Arc of the Central Chesapeake Region, who is managing the project. The hospital, she says, offers placements in a variety of settings.

The positions are ones in which the work is readily broken down into a series of repetitive tasks, including clerical duties, making reminder calls to patients and taking vital signs. A student's day includes an hour of classroom work — resume-writing, interview techniques, money management and the like — and five hours on the job, with coaching from instructors to ensure he or she is doing the work correctly. They're expected to become comfortable in the setting and navigate the hospital's sprawling campus.

Michele Dilegge, one of the county schools' special-education workers steering the program, describes Project Search as "more intense" than most vocational programs for students with disabilities, and says it offers them a shot at more competitive jobs.

"It is more meaningful work. It's not the traditional jobs," she says, referring to positions such as stocking storerooms and mopping floors. "We want the kids to have more of a career."

For Kelsey Williams, 20, of Annapolis, who is hoping for a hospital job, her coming internship requires certification in CPR because she'll be around patients. Currently filling linen and hospital gown orders and bringing them to the correct unit, and helping with cleaning duties, Williams wanted her next position to be transporting patients within the hospital.

"They didn't say no. But they said, 'These are things you have to be able to do,' " White says. With help from one of the people on her support team, Williams earned a two-year specialized CPR certification.

Seven of the internship students are preparing to receive high school certificates next spring from Anne Arundel County public schools, and two are clients of Arc. Because of their disabilities, they may receive schooling until they are 21.

The program is good for the community, good for the hospital and good for the interns, says Sharon Borland, AAMC's human resources director. That's not to say there weren't rough spots as the hospital began carving out tasks for students in August, but, she says, that was to be expected with a new project.

"We'll only be able to impact a dozen folks a year, but it does help them be able to get employment," Borland says. "We are definitely committed to making this work and helping other employers pick this up."

The program pulls together state, regional and local resources for people with disabilities and approaches businesses to form a team that is led largely by the businesses, with the others providing support for the students. At AAMC, the program has drawn together people and resources from the Hannah More School, which operates programs at county schools; Arc; the state's Division of Rehabilitative Services; and Service Coordination, a nonprofit that links people with disabilities to resources. Already, officials say, they're looking to get other employers involved.