Search + Rescue: Project SEARCH enhances job realm
Updated: Sep 15
This article first appeared as the cover story in the July edition of Today Magazine, our monthly publication
By Christopher DeFrancesco — Special to Today Magazine
Editor’s Note — Favarh’s Project SEARCH at UConn Health offers immersive internship opportunities for people with disabilities
• Canton-based Favarh — aka the Arc of the Farmington Valley — has served people with intellectual and developmental disabilities since 1958
• Favarh (FAY-var) is a local chapter of the Arc — a worldwide nonprofit organization that supports people with such disabilities
• Farmington-based UConn Health encompasses John Dempsey Hospital, a doctoral teaching institution, and other medical facilities and safety initiatives
This is an updated and revised version of a story that originally appeared in UConn Today, the news website of the University of Connecticut
ON A TYPICAL weekday, Cale Barlow leaves his home in West Hartford, gets on a bus, then takes a connecting bus, and arrives to start his work shift at 11:30 a.m.
He spends most of the time until 8 p.m. in the kitchen one floor below the Food Court in UConn Health’s main building, working behind the scenes to help Morrison Healthcare serve a broad clientele of patients, visitors, workforce and learners.
When Alison Willette worked in the same kitchen, she would focus on food preparation most days. She identifies herself as a high-functioning autistic adult and an aspiring baker who was learning to drive — until then, relying on rides from others to get to work.
For both, the road to employment went through Favarh’s Project SEARCH at UConn Health, a program that prepares young adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities to transition into the workforce.
“When I was in that program, I learned certain skills that I didn’t learn before that helped me become better, and successful, and more evolved to be ready for this job,” Barlow says. “And then later on, once you do get through that program and you see what you can do, what your abilities are, then that’s something you can go forward with.”
Barlow was a Project SEARCH intern at UConn Health from August 2020 through June 2021.
“The goal is competitive employment,” says Sandra Finnimore, UConn Health’s Project SEARCH manager. “We teach them how to be independently employed and all of the nuances that go along with being independently employed: lots of communication skills and interpersonal skills, soft skills that are all transferable to many different departments.”
The transferable skills from his Project SEARCH intern experiences in receiving, housekeeping and linen put Barlow in the position to find work in food service. His responsibilities include washing pots, pans and trays, trash and recycling removal, and keeping the work area clean.
“I’ve been doing it for over a year now, so I’ve definitely gotten the hang of it,” Barlow says. “I did learn what I’m good at, what I can do, what I enjoy doing — so that did give me an idea of what I can do and what I was good at, like what I could see myself hopefully doing in the near future.”
He was hired in the kitchen part-time in August 2021 and moved to full-time in March.
Willette’s path to employment was accelerated. She already had two years of culinary school experience at the Bristol Technical Education Center when she joined Project SEARCH in August 2021. Fittingly, her first assignment was in the kitchen, which at the time was under the management of Sodexo, the previous food service vendor.
“I learned how to do things like come on time to work, be punctual, and I’ve learned how to work with my emotions because I have bad anxiety,” Willette says.
She took to it quickly.
“Ali did an internship with Sodexo,” Finnimore says. “They came to me and said, ‘I want to hire her.’ So she went through the process, applied, interviewed along with everyone else who would be applying, and she earned the job.”
That was in November 2021, less than three months after she started. Willette’s only other experience with competitive employment was part-time at Starbucks before joining Project SEARCH. In March 2023 she graduated to “natural supports,” a term used to describe someone who no longer needs a job coach. She since has left Morrison Healthcare for another opportunity.
“Natural supports is the ultimate goal for all of my individuals,” Finnimore says.
The program defines “competitive employment” as working a minimum of 16 hours a week in a nonseasonal position, earning comparably to others in that position.
Project SEARCH was founded in 1996 at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. It is designed for students either in their last year of high school or graduates in their first year out of school. UConn Health had seven interns in the 2022-23 program. The program has graduated more than 40 interns over nine cohorts.
“They’re gaining real-life experience, hands-on learning, transferable skills, as well as exposure to a well-known name like UConn Health on their resumé,” says Finnimore, who has overseen Project SEARCH at UConn Health since it started in 2015 as the first host site in Connecticut.
“They’re getting the trainings that the employees here would go through. It’s an opportunity they wouldn’t typically have.”
The program runs about 40 weeks, from August through May. The interns report every day at 8 a.m. for a morning meeting that focuses on skills needed to become and stay employable. Then they go to their assigned areas to work for the next five hours. They reconvene around 2 p.m. for a wrap-up session.
“They’re actually in the job every day and they’re working on it,” Finnimore says. “When you’re trying to hone those skills, you need repetitiveness. It’s important to them. So doing it every single day really helps them get the ins and outs of each job, and it helps them learn whether they like that job or not — and the skills they learn here are transferable to any type of job.”
The typical Project SEARCH experience at UConn Health includes internships in three different areas, each for about 10 weeks. For Brett Hammond, his first assignment was the mail room.
“It’s been a learning experience for me,” Hammond says. “We’ve been doing a lot of thank-you cards, and they’re teaching us job skills, like how to keep a job and budgeting. It teaches me how to be a better employee, and teaches me to be more diligent when I’m doing the mail, more focused on my work.”
Interns are paired with mentors in each department. One of Hammond’s was Lindsay Reeves, a mail courier employed by UConn Health contractor Courier Express Inc.
“Brett’s been on the route with me, so he’s learning to do the route,” Reeves says. “I also showed him how to do lookups, which he does really well. He can put the mail away also.”
Like many in Project SEARCH, Hammond was looking for his first independent employment experience.
In April — before the conclusion of his Project SEARCH internship — he found it, as a maintenance worker at the Newington Price Chopper. His responsibilities include collecting shopping carts, trash removal, and maintaining the bottle return machines.
One of the assignments Jazmine Barber experienced was at check-in at the UConn Health Psoriasis Center. She has been learning the responsibilities of a clinic office assistant under the mentorship of Laurie Forbes, who’s been a COA for nearly a decade.
“I like it, because she’s learning and then she’s accepting whatever I explain to her and she’s keeping track of everything,” Forbes says about her experience as a mentor. “She’s very good. She’s very outgoing and she’s very smart.”
Barber says, “If there’s anything that I’m stuck on, she’s there to help me.”
Barber already knows she wants to work as a certified nursing assistant. “I have to build some medical field experiences, whether it’s doing housekeeping at a nursing home, checking in patients and checking out patients in dermatology, or doing receptionist work at a doctor’s office,” she says.
And she’s on her way to doing that. Barber also found independent employment early. She’s been working as a companion with Home Instead in West Hartford since April, assisting clients in their homes and running their errands.
In fact, all seven of this year’s Project SEARCH interns at UConn Health found independent employment and graduated the program early.
Another is Jordan MacFadden, who also had a turn in the UConn Health kitchen under the guidance of one of several mentors, including Willette on occasion.
“I do like it, but it’s a bit of a struggle,” MacFadden says. “But I’m good with repetition, so it’s better if I do things over and over again to get it right. I’m hoping to get different skills in different areas. I’d like to do more things in the hospital.”
She ultimately would like to help teach classes at an arts-and-crafts retailer.
“I like that the job coaches are pushy because I wouldn’t have become the person I am compared to when I first started, and I’m happy about that,” MacFadden says.
“Working with Project SEARCH gives us the opportunity to help individuals achieve their personal best daily,” says Kevin Geraghty, food and nutrition director for Morrison Healthcare at UConn Health. “We believe that the structure and discipline of a commercial kitchen environment afford them ability to develop the life skills needed for candidates to be successful in their personal lives, their family lives and in their communities.”
Project SEARCH is always looking for employers that might be a good fit as intern hosts. At UConn Health, areas like food and nutrition, materials management, linens, housekeeping, courier service, the dermatology clinic and dental finance historically have the most interns.
“We work very closely with the department when developing internships to find that mutually beneficial area that would help them and help us,” Finnimore says. “The mentor’s routine is thrown off and slowed down a little bit, and then the amazingness happens, and the intern starts to do better in their job. Their go-to person helps them with their struggles, and they celebrate with them their successes.”
When they’re not in their work areas, the interns are learning about job development, at a moderate pace for the first four months, then more intensively.
“January is when we really start hard-core job developing,” Finnimore says. “Our lesson plans are all focused around job developing and job searching, interview skills, and the ins and outs of that process. And then, if they find a job before Project SEARCH ends, they graduate early, they start. If they don’t, then we do job developing after. We’ll start a week after the program ends with having them come in and do more intense job searching.”
The program formally ends with a bridge ceremony — equivalent to a graduation — where the interns are presented with a certificate of completion. Since everyone found jobs early this year, they weren’t all able to attend the ceremony at UConn Health on May 31.
“This year’s Project SEARCH interns have accomplished so much since the beginning of the program,” Finnimore says. “This was the first year we successfully placed all of the interns before the end of the program year. Great job, graduates!”
That post-graduation counseling helped Barlow get his food service job.
“I definitely knew at the start I had a ways to go before I could actually get a job, but through when I first started I did learn a lot and I learned a lot of skills, to get along with people, and also to just find solutions,” Barlow says. “And I do know that I have to always be on my best behavior, always come in positive.”
Kayla Cunningham graduated from Project SEARCH in June 2020. She was able to get a job in housekeeping at UConn Health starting that December. She primarily has been working third shift keeping the operating rooms clean.
“I always had a passion working in the hospital and I love keeping patients safe and alive,” Cunningham says. “I love cleaning the hospital nice and neat, especially during this pandemic.”
“They’re gaining real-life experience, hands-on learning, transferable skills, as well as exposure to ... UConn Health on their resumé” — Sandra Finnimore • Project SEARCH manager
“Feedback from supervisors was always that they can’t find something wrong with her room,” Finnimore says. “She applied, went through all the right channels, and because of her internship they knew she could do the job — and she got it.”
George Moses oversees custodial services at UConn Health.
“Kayla is amazing,” Moses says. “She is a very important part of our team. She is treated just like everyone else. This young lady has literally grown up in front of our eyes.”
Meanwhile, Cate Alix is a Project SEARCH graduate who went on to competitive employment outside of UConn Health. For three years now she has been an office assistant at Mintz + Hoke, an advertising agency in Avon.
“The Project SEARCH program at UConn Health was the most influential program that my daughter Cate, who has Down syndrome, had the good fortune to be a part of,” says her mother, Noelle Alix.
“She was taught not only job skills in each internship rotation she did, but more importantly, she learned professionalism — an almost hidden agenda that provided Cate with the necessary and critical skills that enabled her to be employed upon graduation from the Project SEARCH program. We are so grateful that Cate got to be a part of this amazing program. Thank you to UConn Health for being the host site for a program that changed our daughter’s life.”
“We’ve gone in and far exceeded every department’s expectations of our individuals,” Finnimore says. “It helps change the culture a little bit. You have an individual who truly loves coming to work every single day, and that helps build the morale and the desire for their staff to want to be there for them.”
Housekeeping’s relationship with Project SEARCH goes back to the program’s second year at UConn Health.
“We have learned more from the interns than they have actually learned from us,” Moses says. “These individuals are very passionate, attentive and willing to learn.”
Geraghty, from the food contractor Morrison Healthcare, adds, “All of the interns and staff who’ve come to us through Project SEARCH are a pleasure to work with.”
Marisol Cruz, education and development specialist, is UConn Health’s human resources liaison for Project SEARCH.
“I think it is such a benefit to have Project SEARCH interns working within UConn Health because it not only conveys and promotes an inclusive work environment, but it also encourages empathy, which is such a vital trait when working with patients and customers,” Cruz says. +
Christopher DeFrancesco is a communications professional at UConn Health — he previously was an award-winning reporter and anchor for WTIC Radio NewsTalk 1080
He won a first-place award in this year’s SPJ contest for another UConn Health-related story published in Today Magazine — CLICK HERE for that story
Today Magazine covers the heart of the Farmington Valley — the five core Valley towns of Avon, Canton, Farmington, Granby and Simsbury — via community news that matters nationwide