COLUMBUS — Nick Gross has been hard at work the last nine months.

“I’ve been needed all over the place,” he said.

From handling housekeeping duties to sterilizing medical equipment, the 19-year-old is getting on-the-job experience at Columbus Community Hospital.

For the past six years, CCH has partnered with Columbus Public Schools, Educational Service Unit 7 and other entities to offer an internship program called Project SEARCH. The program gives students with developmental disabilities an opportunity to learn the job and life skills needed to find employment.

Students are referred to the program and must be at least 18 years old and in their final year of educational services eligibility through the state.

At CCH, they can be placed into a rotation of eight different departments where they are mentored and shown the ropes.

“They are immersed in the workplace,” said Reye Snitily, education coordinator at the hospital.

A focus is teaching students soft skills as they spend time in areas such as the emergency department, housekeeping, nutrition services and skilled nursing unit.

Participants like Gross are a big help, especially when a department is short-staffed, said Cheryl Griffiths, the hospital's environmental service supervisor.

“I really love this program,” she said. “It benefits us as much as the kids. We learn just as much as they do. We teach them the things we think will hopefully benefit them in the long run.”

A typical day for the students involves work and an academic curriculum that educates them about soft skills and social interaction and also includes mock interviews.

Gross is finishing his internship, which lasts a school-calendar year. In that time he has picked up tips on how to focus, listen and handle social situations.

He and two other interns will graduate from the program Wednesday during a ceremony at the hospital. Gross wants to use what he learned to attend Central Community College-Columbus and study information technology.

Ryan Goetsch, Project SEARCH skills trainer, said the program is different than other job-placement services.

“Those might be for an hour a day, a couple times a week. When they come here during the day they are here at 7:45 in the morning and are on the job by 8 and they are learning skills. Then at 1:15 they do classroom time,” he said.

Some students, like Lee Martensen, found employment at CCH after graduating from the program.

The 21-year-old works part time on the second shift. He is usually there three days a week and every fourth weekend. His job entails cleaning and sweeping floors and stairwells.

During his internship, Martensen came out of his shell.

“I learned how to be more flexible and be a little more talkative. Those who know me know I’m more of a quiet type,” he said.

Those in the program aren’t guaranteed employment at the hospital after graduation, but several have been hired to work there.

Both Snitily and Griffiths said they notice how a student’s confidence grows as they learn and become more independent.

Regardless of whether they end up working at CCH, Griffiths said it's a really good feeling to teach the students new skills.

“I enjoy being able to get to know who they are. They teach us a lot of things. It is not just a one-way street. It is very rewarding,” she said.

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