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Seton’s Project SEARCH finds opportunities for young adults with disabilities


MARBLE FALLS — Young adults with learning disabilities face a tough battle landing a good job that allows them to live as independently as possible. Most people relegate these individuals to low-paying, menial jobs.

But Seton Healthcare Family is changing that through Project SEARCH, which offers a nine-month internship at one of five facilities with Seton Highland Lakes joining in this fall.

“We recognize that our staff needs to reflect the community,” said Jenny Hawkins, the Seton director of diversity. “And one of the fastest-growing populations we serve, our patients, is adults with learning disabilities.”

Project SEARCH is also about empowering young adults with learning disabilities. The program, which Seton implemented in 2007, provides these young adults with solid training in the hope they’ll take those skills and either apply them at Seton or another business in the community.

Hawkins explained the Project SEARCH internship runs concurrent with most academic years. During the nine months, the interns learn and build skills in at least three different areas of the hospital, she said.

“These are very high-level, complex areas but something we can build systems around (to help interns learn the skills),” Hawkins said.

Some of the areas in the hospital include, but are not limited to, the pharmacy, the emergency room and materials management.

In other words, interns are not just emptying the trash.

Hawkins said the ultimate mission is to help interns learn skills they can use to find competitive employment to live independently.

Since starting the program in 2007, Seton’s Project SEARCH has provided internships for 118 young adults.

“Of those 118 individuals, we’ve helped 88 percent of them find competitive employment,” Hawkins said. “It shows that if we give people opportunities, they can do so much more than you might realize.”

But she and hospital officials have also noted something else.

“It really has changed (Seton associates’) belief on what a person with (intellectual) disabilities can do,” Hawkins said.

The program has also opened the eyes of patients. Hawkins recalled one patient, a mother of a child with Down’s syndrome, who saw an intern with the same disorder working in the hospital and doing a complex job.

Before seeing the intern, the mother had accepted certain limitations for her daughter. That one interaction, however, changed her idea of what her daughter was capable of doing.

“She said, ‘I will never think of my daughter’s future the same,’” Hawkins recalled.

Parents of interns commend the program and the staff for the impact it’s had on their young adult child’s life.

“Through Project SEARCH, my son had the opportunity to experience several rotations in a hospital to see what department would be a great fit for his skills,” said Vanessa Branch, mother of Brandon Branch. After graduating from the program, Brandon landed a full-time, paid position at Seton Northwest.

“He is proud to get up for work every day and even more proud of receiving his first paid position,” his mom added. “I can see so much growth, independence and maturity in my son. This has been a true blessing to my son and our family.”

During the internships, which are individualized for each young adult, Seton staff works alongside the interns. Each hospital site has a teacher and a counselor (possibly two) who are dedicated to supporting each young adult.

“So if (the intern) is in the pharmacy, they’re there with them, helping them learn what they need to do,” Hawkins said. “But they begin to fade away when (the interns) know what do to.”

The counselors and teacher continue to check in with each intern on a regular basis.

The interns appreciate the support, as well as the acceptance they receive from the staff.

“During Project SEARCH, Sabrina received a lot of hands-on training and interaction with adults in a very healthy working environment,” said Winnie Aman, mother of Sabrina Der. “The best was that she was able to get a position after she finished in a job she loves as a pharmacy technician.”

Along with Seton staff and associates, the Seton Healthcare Family collaborates with a number of other organizations such as Goodwill Industries, Bluebonnet Trails Community Services, Hill Country Community Services, Austin Travis County Integral Care and local school districts.

Seton is anticipating offering 50 internships this academic year with eight to 10 at Seton Highland Lakes Hospital in Burnet.

Applications for Project SEARCH may be found at

Seton officials are also hosting a Project SEARCH informational meeting at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 9 at Seton Highland Lakes Hospital, 3201 S. Water St. (U.S. 281) in Burnet.

Email for more information.