Nov. 29, 2023 — Every weekday morning, 21-year-old Mathias Misener wakes up, dons his uniform and badge and rides a Gainesville Regional Transit System bus to UF Health Shands Hospital to begin his internship duties for the day.
Sometimes, he collects and transports used hospital linens and scrubs for laundering. Other times, he restocks cleaning supplies throughout the hospital’s many units and floors, working with supervisors and colleagues to ensure care providers have the materials they need.
Misener, who has Down syndrome, is one of eight neurodivergent Alachua County Public Schools students learning competitive job and life skills at the hospital as part of a yearlong internship program called Project SEARCH. The program launched in Alachua County this fall as part of an initiative under the community and belonging pillar of the UF College of Medicine’s strategic plan.
“I think this program is much needed, and I am so glad it started when it did and Mathias was able to participate,” said Barbara Misener, Mathias’ mother. “He generally has a smile and is enthused about what he’s doing. He’s transporting himself there, which is a huge step toward independence, and the program has been great in making him advocate for himself more.”
Barbara Misener added that she hopes this experience will help her son find a job where he can feel like he is making a difference. After leaving the school system, she said, there is not much support for people with intellectual disabilities to find employment and independence. But thanks to Project SEARCH, her son, who dreams of meaningful work and one day earning a driver’s license, has help and opportunities to get on-the-job experience in a health care setting.
“Some companies don’t know they can employ people with disabilities,” she said. “Having a program like this to teach these young adults job skills is huge.”
First developed in 1996 at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Project SEARCH has many sites around the U.S. and worldwide. The program typically involves a rotation through three internships, along with training and mentorship for skills like managing finances and communicating with co-workers. Project SEARCH is supported in Gainesville in combination with the UF College of Medicine, UF Health, Alachua County Public Schools, the Center for Independent Living of North Central Florida, the Florida Department of Education Vocational Rehabilitation division, the UF Center for Autism and Related Disabilities, and the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.
Melissa Williams, mother of Project SEARCH intern John Williams, said the program is teaching her son important life, social and business skills, like how to interact with people professionally and how to problem-solve. It also brings him opportunities for fun and fulfillment.
“It gives him a purpose every day,” Melissa Williams said.
John Williams’ first internship rotation at UF Health is in environmental services, where he cleans windows, vacuums and performs other duties on the third floor of the hospital’s east tower. His two twin sisters drop him off at the bus stop in the mornings, and like Misener, he rides to and from work alone using public transportation.
On his lunch break, Williams likes to practice the budgeting skills he and his fellow interns are learning to pick out different meal options and eat with a friend on the same environmental services rotation.
“He enjoys the independence,” Melissa Williams said. “Eventually, we hope to find him a place to live alone once he gets older and more experienced with taking care of himself, but we’re not in a rush.”