Project Search – New Program at Children’s Hospital Offers Adults with Disabilities Job Training and Hope.

Written and photographed by Gary Turchin.


Project SEARCH intern Lisa, 43, spent 20 years working at a fast food franchise. When a new owner took over, all the adults with disabilities were let go.

“I know it’s against the law,” Lisa said, “but people with disabilities are discriminated against.”

Lisa came to Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland’s Project SEARCH looking for another, hopefully better, job. She’s interning at Materials Management, visiting stockrooms all over the hospital, organizing them and removing expired products, “before,” she said assertively, “the Joint Commission inspection finds them.”

She means it.

Lisa joins 11 other interns—Christine, Derrick, John, David, Jessica, Ryan, Peter, Mariana, Jeff, Leah and Hao—at Project SEARCH, a new job-training program for adults with cognitive disabilities that opened at Children’s Hospital in September 2008.

But the project is new only to Children’s; it comes with a renowned pedigree. Erin Riehle, RN, MSN, founded the program at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital a dozen years ago. She has been so successful at employing adults with disabilities and increasing the range of jobs that are open to them, that it has been replicated at more than 70 sites nationally. Children’s is one of the first sites in Northern California.

The need for Project SEARCH, and programs like it, is obvious: The unemployment rate for adults with disabilities approaches 70 percent; and job choices for those who do work are very limited.

It’s sad when you consider that there are few more eager, willing and able individuals out there wanting—needing—to be contributing members of the workforce.

“I really, really want to make my own money,” said intern Derrick, 23. “That’s why I came here (Project SEARCH) in the first place.”


Children’s Project SEARCH program is funded by the Regional Center of the East Bay and the California State Department of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Oakland Adult and Career Education funds the teacher component. East Bay Innovations (EBI) manages the effort. The program is operated at no cost to Children’s Hospital.

Lori Kotsonas, director of Employment Services at EBI, directs Project SEARCH at Children’s Hospital. “The main purpose of Project SEARCH,” she explained, “is to provide real-world work opportunities for people with disabilities in a larger variety of fields than were previously available.”

In the past, workers with disabilities were frequently relegated to menial labor performed out of view. Project SEARCH wants to expand the job horizon, and even the career horizon, of its clients. Lori is ambitious for them.

“People with developmental disabilities have proven to be very capable,” she said, “especially if presented with a job that is routine and systematic.”

Routine and systematic are the keys to the Project SEARCH pick-up truck. Even if a job is complex, if it can be broken down into routines, and performed systematically, with the right support or assisted technologies, the interns can drive almost any job successfully.

But Lori, ever the advocate, wants more than just jobs for her interns; she wants careers, benefits, and opportunities to move up the ladder.

“It’s nice that you can be a bagger for 15 years,” she said, “and maybe, for some that’s enough. But for others, why shouldn’t they also get promoted? ”

Assisted Technologies

Another key to Project SEARCH’s success is a willingness to look with fresh eyes at how jobs are done. Sometimes a simple innovation—or assisted technology—is all it takes to tap a client ’s special abilities.

That’s where job coaches and teachers come in. Three full-time job coaches and two part-time job teachers serve Children’s interns, overseeing their labors, reinforcing their skills, and just as importantly, finding ways to accommodate jobs to an intern’s abilities or disabilities.

That could mean many things, from creating a picture book of instructions for an intern who can’t read or follow written ones, to designing a system with precounted slots, or envelopes, for an intern who has trouble keeping track of numbers.

Teacher Cathy Nielsen has been guiding intern Christine, 35, through a big filing job in Children’s Human Resources department. When Christine first started the assignment, she had trouble reading the file labels she was pasting on the folders. Cathy suggested a simple solution: bigger type. It sounds like a small change, but it made a big difference to Christine’s job success.

Cathy went to the trouble of finding employee files with long names on them to determine how large the type could be while still fitting the name across the label. The bonus: Now the files aren’t just easier for Christine to read; they are easier for everyone to read.

At Project SEARCH, that’s called a “universal design change,” because it benefits all workers, not just the disabled, long into the future.

Another benefit—for children with disabilities—is seeing working role models such as Christine, Lisa, Derrick and all the Project SEARCH interns and graduates. Seeing adults with disabilities in the hospital, working and productive, assures parents and kids with disabilities that there is hope and a future for them.

All in the Family

For Linda Tywoniak, director of Compliance at Children’s Hospital’s research center, bringing Project SEARCH to the hospital was personal. Her son is a client at East Bay Innovations, and she knew Project SEARCH had a stellar reputation. With her help, a Cincinnati Children’s delegation, including project founder Erin Riehle, came to Oakland to pitch their program.

Doug Myers, Children’s chief operating officer and chief financial officer, made the call. “I just saw it as an incredible program that gave people who otherwise weren’t given a shot, a chance to be productive members of our workforce,” he said. “I could see both the joy that it brought to the interns, while at the same time fulfilling a valuable need for the institution.”

Linda understands the joy part, intimately.

“Because of my son,” Linda acknowledged, “I know what this program can do for these young workers emotionally, and for their self-esteem and hope for the future.

“You know, for their whole lives they have been put down,” she said, then paused to gather herself. It’s a painful and personal truth.

“It’s good for them and good for us,” she continued. “It makes us all slow down, appreciate what they are doing and what we are doing.

“It also enables all of the public involved with Children’s Hospital Oakland to actually see that these individuals have more capabilities and talents than someone might think.”

Posted in Community News.