Texas Health Dallas Helps High School Graduates with Project SEARCH

High school graduates in Texas Health’s Project SEARCH program. Credit: Texas Health Dallas.

High school graduates with disabilities have a chance for a future with Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas’s Project SEARCH initiative. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, recent research has shown that just 19.3% of individuals with disabilities were employed compared to 66.3% of Americans without disabilities employed. That’s why Project SEARCH is so important – high school graduates with disabilities are getting a chance to intern and earn employment, significantly higher than the national average!

The manager of Project SEARCH, Francisco Gonzalez, has been making dreams and jobs come true for more than three years. Take 19-year-old student, Lucas, for example. Just seconds after he earned his high school diploma from L.V. Berkner High School, he received a job offer from Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.

“When you meet these students, you totally understand why I have the heart and dedication that I do,” said Gonzalez in a recent press release. Gonzalez, manager of hospitality and concierge services at Texas Health Dallas, oversees the hospital’s Project SEARCH program. The one-year, unpaid internship program provides Lucas and other high school seniors with disabilities, an opportunity to learn life skills and hands-on training at a host business site.

Gonzalez’s desire to improve the lives of people with disabilities started 40 years ago when he began volunteering with the Special Olympics. “It’s a passion of mine supporting programs for special needs — and being the voice for this group.” A few years ago, he learned about Project SEARCH and in his words, “took the ball and ran with it.”

Since 2017, the collaborative effort has involved Texas Health Dallas, Richardson Independent School District, Project SEARCH and Quest Employment Services. Before acceptance into the program, students must apply and pass an interview process. From there, they work three 10-week rotations. With more than 25 departments committed to the program at Texas Health Dallas, students have the option of interning in a wide range of locations, from Environmental Services (EVS) to Surgery.

 While working in EVS, Lucas learned the process of waste management and housekeeping protocol in the emergency department. “I always have gloves on, and I wear a protective apron,” he said in a statement. “I like my job because I am moving around. I get to travel around the hospital buildings, and I am comfortable with my routine.”

Gonzalez said Lucas and the other nine students work in their respective departments for five-and-a-half hours, along with 60-minutes of classroom instruction. According to Kara Hayman, Richardson ISD’s Special Student Services transition coordinator, the instructional class focuses on safety in the workplace, technology, health and nutrition, as well as financial literacy.

“Along with learning the importance of teamwork, students also learn the value of obtaining and maintaining employment,” she said in the press release. Hayman added that the program provides students with long-term career opportunities that would be difficult for them to access outside of Project SEARCH.

Since its inception at Texas Health Dallas, more than 40 students have participated in the program, and 14 students have been offered and accepted employment at the hospital. “We owe a significant amount of the program’s success to Gonzalez and his outstanding leadership,” said Jim Parobek, Texas Health Dallas president, in the press release.

Parobek wholeheartedly supports the program and its students. He presented Lucas with his high school diploma and commended him on the work already accomplished at Texas Health Dallas. “Seeing these students learn and flourish right before your eyes serves as daily motivation to keep the program alive,” Parobek said. “Our continued support of Project SEARCH is a testament to Texas Health Dallas’ sincere commitment of improving the well-being of our community, and that includes enhancing the life skills of our young people when opportunities arise.”

Hayman agrees, saying, “Texas Health Dallas has provided a real-world working environment for students to learn and practice skills that have led to increased employment opportunities in the community and at the hospital.”

Lucas couldn’t agree more. His top three goals after completing the program were to receive his diploma, learn more independence skills and finally — get a job.

From Richard Patterson’s perspective, Lucas set himself apart with his positive attitude, allowing him to achieve all three goals and more.

“Lucky for us, Lucas decided he wanted to be a part of the EVS team,” Patterson said, who serves as EVS director at Texas Health Dallas. Just moments after receiving his high school diploma, Patterson offered Lucas a paid position at the hospital. “I am excited to watch Lucas grow into his new role and continue to learn more about EVS and the entire hospital,” he added.

“Lucas is a great asset to our hospital,” Parobek said. “We’re proud to make him an official member of our family.”

And Lucas is ready and willing to begin a new journey on his career path. “I just want to thank everyone with my school and this hospital for giving me this chance.” Lucas also shared that his job is important, because it allows him to keep the hospital clean and people safe.

“I’m on time every day. I keep up with the trash on every floor, and I get it done.”

Texas Health Resources is a faith-based, nonprofit health system with a service area that consists of 16 counties and more than 7 million people.

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