I want to own my own daycare for kids with special needs.

One Young Adult Finds Employment and Spreads Enthusiasm at Children's Hospital Colorado

Tim Schlewitz
Tim Schlewitz and his co-worker, Charlene Koch, at Children's Hospital Colorado.

Tim began his career just as most young adults are advised to do: through school, he took advantage of job training programs, secured and completed an internship, and performed so well his manager hired him at the first opportunity.

This seems like an expected path to adulthood, but for Tim, who has Down syndrome, many view it as an extraordinary accomplishment.

He did it with the help of Project SEARCH, a national job training program for young adults with developmental disabilities. As an Aurora Public Schools student, Tim attended Crossroads, a transition center for kids with developmental disabilities. Through this program, Tim enrolled in Project SEARCH.

"I'm so excited [to be here]," Tim said. "I want to stay here."

Tim works half-days in the anesthesiology department at Children's Hospital Colorado. The hospital hired him shortly after his graduation from Project SEARCH in May 2010.

"People often underestimate what those with developmental disabilities are capable of," said Stacey Whiteside Renz, Project SEARCH program manager at Children's Hospital Colorado. "There is a belief that they're only able to do so much. In truth, their potential is much higher than many typically expect, especially in terms of workplace contributions."

"I think it's important for us as a society to move towards inclusion," said Marisa Valeras, Project SEARCH coordinator at Children's Hospital Colorado. She notes a change in the hospital as staff adjusted from working for people with disabilities to working alongside them.

"There was a culture shift for everyone to be more professional," she said. "Just because Tim has Down syndrome doesn't mean we don't hold him to the same standards."

Beyond the obvious benefits for young adults like Tim - self-confidence, independence, and the opportunity to earn wages - the program has had an unexpected benefit to the workplace as well.

Helping Tim work more effectively has helped processes in the department run more smoothly too. By making small accommodations like color-coding or re-organizing a shelf to make it easier for someone with a disability, it inevitably makes it easier for all staff in that department, too.

"This has been a really positive workforce development move," said Whiteside Renz. "The people we have hired from Project SEARCH have demonstrated an excellent work ethic and a loyalty to our hospital. We are also witnessing a boost in morale from other staff as they see the dedication from these employees."

Throughout the hospital, everyone seems to know Tim. He chit-chats with staff in the cafeteria, waves to patients in the atrium, and tells jokes to the valet staff.

"This is also really important for families," said Valeras. "Maybe their child with Down syndrome is coming in to have a heart procedure and they see Tim as a contributing member to society and that gives them hope."

Project SEARCH began in 1995 at Cincinnati Children's Hospital; the model developed there has since traveled to 42 states and two foreign countries, throughout many industries.

Two years ago, Jim Shmerling, DHA, FACHE, president and CEO of Children's Hospital Colorado, advocated for the program's implementation. The program began in August 2009.

"Project SEARCH is a mutually beneficial employment program," said Dr. Shmerling. "We fill vacant positions with motivated individuals who exhibit a great work ethic, and Project SEARCH employees are given an opportunity to contribute, find purposeful work and become self efficient. We all win."

Here in Colorado, Project SEARCH includes a special education teacher from Aurora Public Schools as well as job coaches from Community Link. The job coach accompanies the student to the internship to help with intensive job training and to work toward total independence.

The first class of students graduated from Project SEARCH at Children's Hospital Colorado in May 2010. Of the seven students, four have found employment - three at Children's Hospital Colorado and one in the community. The program, in its second year, continues to work with students after graduation, helping them obtain permanent employment and independence.

According to Valeras, Children's Hospital Colorado is one of just two employers in Colorado currently hosting Project SEARCH. There is an initiative to implement it throughout Colorado.

As the program continues to evolve and attract more students, Valeras hopes for 100 percent employment for all students and, "to truly strengthen our workforce by including more people with disabilities."