High school, hospital partner for work training, life lessons

A bright afternoon winter sun comes through the large windows in South Peninsula Hospital’s cafeteria. An equally bright smile is on the face of Stephanie Harry. 

Cloth in hand, Harry ensures traces of tables’ previous occupants are wiped away, leaving a clean surface for the next people choosing that spot for a break, whether it be hospital visitors or employees. That done, she returns to her other chores in the hospital’s busy kitchen.

While a student at Homer High School, Harry began a work-study program at the hospital. She began in the laundry and then moved to the kitchen, her favorite work place of the two assignments. That was 25 years ago.   

“She spent two or three years with her teacher, Candy Rohr, and a supervisor at the hospital, going over in the afternoons,” said Harry’s mother, Anita. “A position came open about the time she was graduating and she went for it.”

With more than two decades of experience, Harry had some advice for two Homer High School students enrolled in a similar program, seniors Kaylee Alward and Ian McCormick.

“Follow directions,” said Harry, laughing.

HHS special services teacher Paul Gutzler said he was approached by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District about developing a work experience program. When he contacted Derotha Ferraro, the hospital’s director of public relations, she immediately agreed.

“She basically got the ball rolling and hospital department managers were more than eager to jump in,” said Gutzler.

Once Alward and McCormick completed the hospital’s extensive employee orientation, they began working at the hospital five days a week, about two hours a day. Like Harry, Alward works in the kitchen; McCormick is in housekeeping. They are supervised by hospital personnel, but also have school district job coaches working with them. Each of the students receives a stipend for their work.

With experience working in the high school kitchen, Alward was a natural fit for the program, although she’s learning new skills at the hospital.

“It’s a lot different. The kitchen (at the school) is not as big and that makes a big difference,” said Alward. “At the school, it’s small and easy to remember where everything goes. At the hospital, it’s bigger and harder to remember.”

Her job coach Rhonda Owens is with her every step of the way, documenting the instruction Alward receives and organizing it in a notebook to which Alward can refer.

“It’s cool because she could take that home and show her parents what she’s doing,” said Owens of the learning aid she’s created for Alward.

This isn’t McCormick’s first paying job. He has done yard work and helped people move. At the hospital, he helps keep the facility clean by sweeping hallways. Occasionally, McCormick also gets to operate the hospital’s shredder, a task he prefers to sweeping. 

“The key thing is to just keep moving at a steady pace,” he said. 

Kathie Baldwin is McCormick’s job coach and good-naturedly takes in stride his teasing about needing to learn the hospital’s floor plan.

“She keeps getting lost,” he said. 

“I do,” said Baldwin, laughing.

Once they become familiar with their current tasks, both students will have opportunities to work in other areas of the hospital. Alward would prefer staying in the kitchen, but McCormick is hoping to learn more about the technology that helps keep the hospital functioning.

The hospital and school partnership involved a memorandum of agreement that spelled out each party’s expectations.

“Basically, it involved the willingness of a manager to incorporate a very part-time employee,” said Ferraro. “(The students) are not in the building for very long, so there has to be a little bit of special accommodation, not based on skill level, but on what a shift looks like.”

The students have infused the hospital with a new level of enthusiasm, excitement and energy, according to Ferraro.

“My office happens to be near the door they come in and when they get here, I know they’re here. I can hear laughing and the pure joy of having them in the hallway. It’s really neat to have them in the building,” she said.

Since the program began this semester, interest in it has grown among the hospital department managers.

“They’ve started inquiring about how to apply for a student to work in their department and that’s great,” said Ferraro. “At the moment, we’re committed to two (students) through the end of this school year, but what we’ll probably do is allow them to explore work in different departments.”

Edye Rathbun, manager of the hospital’s environmental services, works with McCormick. Besides the obvious task of sweeping, she also is helping him sharpen his customer service skills, such as stepping aside to give customers the right-of-way in the hospital’s hallways.

“He’s doing really well,” said Rathbun, who also had praise for the support given by Owens and Baldwin. “They are wonderful.”

Alward’s mother Stephanie has seen how the program increased Alward’s confidence.

“Sometimes she’s a little intimidated by new things, but once she steps into it and sees she can do it, she takes it seriously,” she said.

McCormick’s father Dave has observed positive changes in his son since beginning the work.

“Change is difficult for him, but he’s catching on and people are reacting positively. He’s enjoying it,” he said. “He’s always been a hard worker and wanted to please people. We’re very proud of him and what he does.”

While the students are working, Gutzler is never too far away.

“It was rewarding for me to hand them a check the other day,” he said. “These real world skills are invaluable.”

Ferraro sees the program as a win for everyone involved.

“Even if they’re not employed at the hospital, they might want to be employed at other local businesses and any way we can help with the quality of life and employment locally is great,” said Ferraro.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.

Stephanie Harry ensures the cleanliness of tables in South Peninsula Hospital’s cafeteria.-Photo by McKibben Jackinsky, Homer News

Stephanie Harry ensures the cleanliness of tables in South Peninsula Hospital’s cafeteria.-Photo by McKibben Jackinsky, Homer News