The Texas Health program offers hands-on training for students with disabilities

Every morning, Martin Vasquez, 19, pushes a cart full of supplies through Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth.

It goes through multiple floors and sends special orders to different departments. After Vasquez finishes his rounds, he heads to the materials management room on the lower floor of the hospital for his next order.

Vasquez, who is a student at Diamond Hill-Jarvis High School, never thought he would end up working in a hospital. A new program opened doors for him.

In August, Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth launched the Project SEARCH internship program in partnership with Fort Worth ISD. The nine-month program provides eight students aged between 18 and 19 with intellectual and developmental disabilities with practical work in a healthcare setting.

“I can deliver orders and that’s pretty cool,” Vazquez said. “I pretty much learned my way around the hospital.”

Students work in several departments within the hospital, including environmental services, food and nutrition services, human resources, materials management, cardiovascular intensive care units, and orthopedic and trauma units.

Project SEARCH is currently at two other Texas Health locations: Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas and Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Plano.

Vasquez and the other interns also work alongside Fort Worth ISD special education teacher Arden Winter and teacher’s aide Crystal Vargas, who are on site every day. They teach interns how to apply and interview for jobs and work on resumes.

“We follow them in their roles and rotations and help support them,” Winter said. “When we’re in the classroom, we explain the importance of a resume and what it can do for each of them. A lot of them don’t understand what that is, so we have to start from the very basics and build on them.”

Enabling students with disabilities to develop their work skills is important to help them in their careers. Several of the hospital’s departments have already expressed interest in hiring their own interns if a position opens up, said Nancy “Nan” Branch, manager of volunteer services at Texas Health Fort Worth Hospital.

“These young people get the opportunity to see what it’s like to have a job that they might not otherwise get,” she said.

The program also served to give students with disabilities the platform to have a voice, Winter said.

“Many of the trainees have never been treated as adults. I don’t know that many of them have ever felt heard,” she said. “I think having them at the center of their experience helped a lot with how they interacted with their peers, even just in that small amount of time, and taught them how to actively listen to each other.”

Left to right: Crystal Vargas, Fort Worth ISD teacher’s aide; Martin Vasquez, materials management intern at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth; Arden Winter, a special education teacher in Fort Worth ISD. (David Moreno | Reporting from Fort Worth)

Interns will receive their high school diplomas in May. The hospital plans to hold a separate celebration for their graduation, Branch said.

After graduation, Vasquez hopes to continue working part-time at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Fort Worth while attending an undecided college and pursuing a degree in business design.

“When I started here, I was a little nervous, but I was taught the ropes about things,” he said, “and I couldn’t be more grateful for that.”

David Moreno is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at [email protected] or through Twitter.

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