Working hearts, engaged minds

By Rashah McChesney

Morris News Service – Alaska

Vincent “Vin” Chavarrir likes to run a laundry-folding machine affectionately dubbed “Sparky” by employees at Central Peninsula Hospital.

To feed a towel into the machine he just lets it slide into the machine “like a dollar in a soda machine.”

It’s one of the simple pleasures of the job for Chavarrir, 20, but is made more meaningful because his internship in Environmental Services at Central Peninsula Hospital is the first time he has had a job.

A new partnership between the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, Central Peninsula Hospital and several other state and local agencies opened internship
opportunities for three students with disabilities in the district who gain hands on job-training instead of sitting in a classroom at school.

The program, Project SEARCH, is the fourth of its kind in the state and joins a growing list of partnerships between school districts, private employers and states that began at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in 1997.

When he completes the year-long internship program at the hospital, Chavarrir, who is autistic, said he’d like to use his newfound job skills to eventually land a job in video game design or voice acting.

He has a good memory for voice actors and rattles off little-known facts about celebrities as he tucks bed sheets in an empty patient room at the hospital.

For instance, he said, Mark Hamill, better known as Luke Skywalker from the Star Wars movies, also is the voice of The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series.

He also likes rock music. At the hospital, a job coach told him he should pretend to clean each room as though he was preparing it for a rock star.

On a recent Tuesday he was cleaning for Lemmy Kilmister, the lead singer of Motorhead.

However, that encyclopedic knowledge — one of the side effects of his autism — can be a barrier to interacting with people.

“He has such a vast knowledge of different things that sometimes he can come off as … arrogant to some people because the stuff that he knows is ridiculous,” said Donald Smythe, Chavarrir’s father. “If you don’t know it, he doesn’t treat you like you’re dumb or stupid or anything like that, he just (says) ‘Ah … why you people don’t understand?’”

When he leaves the program, Chavarrir will join close to 30 other graduates from programs with Mat-Su Regional Hospital, Providence Hospital in Anchorage and a hospital in Fairbanks.

Of those students, 19 have moved on to other employers and one went on to college, said Patrick Reinhart, project coordinator for the Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education.

“It’s an opportunity for these students to really learn job skills in a real work environment versus going to school and kind of thinking about it,” Reinhart said. “These students are really getting immersed in the hospital and it’s a good place to learn, the skills are transferable to a lot of different jobs.”

In a recently discharged patient’s room Chavarrir sanitized a toilet, moved to the counter and sink after being gently reminded to switch rags, then stepped into a small white shower to scrub it down. He doesn’t miss much, and when he wants to remember something, he takes it home to practice.

Last week, it was a trash bag that he spent hours tying and untying to memorize the proper knot, Smythe said.

“He has that kind of personality,” Smythe said. “When we walk through the stores, if he sees something out of place, he grabs it and takes it back to where it’s supposed to be.”

Sarah Mohorcich, who currently interns in the nutrition services department of the hospital, exhibits a similar behavior when she works.

Pans and containers are put exactly where they belong on the salad bar in an order Mohorcich knows by heart.

She sings along with Christmas music while she works, occasionally repeating the location of a set of tongs or container of food under her breath.

As she works, Mohorcich does not seem to be able to stop smiling.

Her coworkers joke about having a photographer follow her around for the day her giggles continue on for several minutes.

Mohorcich, like Chavarrir, enjoys operating the industrial washing machine in the hospital’s kitchen, complete with dish tray and water hose. She grins when she talks about running the dishes through, although she’s quick to point out that her least favorite part of the job is washing pots and pans.

Like Smythe, her father has seen a drastic difference in the 20-year-old, whose disabilities he has a hard time classifying; he calls them a combination of cognitive and motor skills issues.

“It’s nice that she gets to interact with other people and they deal with her and they interact with her differently than, of course, mom or dad would,” said John Mohorcich. “She’s a very hard worker and she’s one of those kids — I still call her a kid even though she’s an adult now — if you tell her, you know, ‘We’re leaving at 7 a.m., so you can’t be late’ she understands that and she’s not going to be late.”

Bringing together disabled and non-disabled employees starts to break down misconceptions that people have of the disabled, said Norm Silta, a vocational rehabilitation counselor in the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

“When you can have a program like this that demonstrates how fairly significantly people with disabilities can work, it goes a long way,” Silta said.

But the purpose of the program is ultimately larger than just breaking down barriers, he said.

“What this is supposed to do is provide quality job experience so that these interns can really get some valuable work experience,” Silta said. “Not just to give them a little work experience and have the employer have a feel-good moment and then the intern get an entry level job, they’re actually supposed to get a higher level job.”

Natawni Hammack, the third local Project SEARCH intern, wants to move into working with animals.

Her favorite part of her morning routine is feeding the goldfish in the behavioral health department of the hospital.

Hammack said she struggles with stress, but shrugs it off with a “who doesn’t?”

She alphabetizes patient files and closes them when patients leave, makes coffee and works as a general office assistant, although it is not always easy.

At the end of each workday, around 1:45 p.m., the group gathers to fill out an evaluation of their day.

Hammack, whose Asperger’s syndrome — a disorder on the autism spectrum — sometimes makes it difficult to interact with people, recalls having to work at answering phones.

“She doesn’t particularly like talking on the phone and we didn’t know that,” said Fran Stetson, Project SEARCH program teacher for the school district. “She had to practice because she wasn’t comfortable doing it.”

Stetson smiled at Hammack and said “now she sounds like an old pro.”

Hammack is quick to interject that she’s still not comfortable.

“Yeah, but you sound so much more professional,” Stetson said.

The program is not for everyone, Stetson said students need to have a deep desire to work. One other intern who started the program this year, dropped out.

Hammack’s mother, Joanie Hawkins, said her son has a more severe version of Asperger’s and would not do well in a job.

Each intern who stays will spend 10 weeks rotating through three departments in the hospital. At the end of each session they work on building resumes and portfolios for potential new employers.

Between funding provided by the Alaska Department of Labor and the school district as well as help from Frontier Community Services, Reinhart said the program should be able to fund itself.

“You don’t want to start a program and get people’s expectations up and then have to cut it out in a couple of years,” he said.

Reinhart hopes the program could expand to include other employers in the community as well — there is value in giving a disabled person a job, he said.

“We’re really trying to concentrate on those students that aren’t getting those kinds of opportunities, the ones that have those characteristics that are going to be successful in a work environment,” Reinhart said.

Rashah McChesney is a reporter for teh Peninsula Clarion.