Project SEARCH Removes Obstacles to Employment

UConn Health continues to be a leader in preparing adults with disabilities for the workforce

Group portrait, Project SEARCH Class of 2023

The 2022-23 Project SEARCH cohort at UConn Health includes (from left) Jordan MacFadden, Tyler Napolitano, Brett Hammond, Jazmine Barber, Nick VanderLeur, Deja Dewar, and Trevor Charron. (Photo by Tina Encarnacion)

On a typical weekday, Cale Barlow leaves his home in West Hartford, gets on a bus, then takes a connecting bus, and arrives to start his work shift at 11:30 a.m.

He’ll spend most of the time until 8 p.m. in the kitchen one floor below the Food Court in UConn Health’s main building, working behind the scenes to help Morrison Healthcare serve UConn Health’s broad clientele of patients, visitors, workforce and learners.

Most days, in the same kitchen, Alison Willette is focusing on food preparation. She identifies herself as a high-functioning autistic adult and an aspiring baker who is learning to drive. For now, she relies on rides from others to get to work.

For both, the road to employment went through Project SEARCH at UConn Health, a program that prepares young adults with developmental or intellectual disabilities to transition into the workforce.

Opening Doors to Independence

“When I was in that program, I learned certain skills that I didn’t learn before that helped me become better, and successful, and more evolved to be ready for this job,” Barlow says. “And then later on, once you do get through that program and you see what you can do, what your abilities are, then that’s something you can go forward with.”

Cale Barlow at the pot wash station
Cale Barlow is a Project SEARCH graduate who has had competitive employment as a kitchen staff member since August 2021. He is an employee of Morrison Healthcare, UConn Health’s food and nutrition contractor. “I know I have a good amount of potential in me, because I’ve always wanted to successful and independent,” Barlow says. (Photo by Chris DeFrancesco)

Barlow was a Project SEARCH intern at UConn Health from August 2020 through June 2021.

“The goal is competitive employment,” says Sandra Finnimore, UConn Health’s Project SEARCH manager. “We teach them how to be independently employed and all of the nuances that go along with being independently employed: lots of communication skills and interpersonal skills, soft skills that are all transferable to many different departments.”

The transferable skills from his Project SEARCH intern experiences in receiving, housekeeping, and linen put Barlow in the position to find work in food service. His responsibilities include washing pots, pans, and trays, trash and recycling removal, and keeping the work area clean.

“I’ve been doing it for over a year now, so I’ve definitely gotten the hang of it,” Barlow says. “I did learn what I’m good at, what I can do, what I enjoy doing, so that did give me an idea of what I can do and what I was good at, like what I could see myself hopefully doing in the near future.”

He was hired in the kitchen part-time in August 2021 and moved to full-time in March.

Ali Willette chopping onions
Alison Willette is a member of the food prep staff of Morrison Healthcare, UConn Health’s food and nutrition vendor, which hired her out of the Project SEARCH program three months into her internship. “My plan is, for next fall, going to Tunxis for business management,” says Willette, who as aspirations to own her own bakery. (Photo by Chris DeFrancesco)

Willette’s path to employment was accelerated. She already had two years of culinary school experience at the Bristol Technical Education Center when she joined Project SEARCH in August 2021. Fittingly, her first assignment was in the kitchen, which at the time was under the management of Sodexo, the previous food service vendor.

“I learned how to do things like come on time to work, be punctual, and I’ve learned how to work with my emotions because I have bad anxiety,” Willette says.

She took to it quickly.

“Ali did an internship with Sodexo,” Finnimore says. “They came to me and said, ‘I want to hire her.’ So she went through the process, applied, interviewed along with everyone else who would be applying, and she earned the job.”

That was in November 2021, less than three months after she started. Willette’s only other experience with competitive employment was part-time at Starbucks before joining Project SEARCH.

How It Works

The program defines “competitive employment” as working a minimum 16 hours a week in a nonseasonal position, earning comparably to others in that position.

The skills that they learn here are transferable to any type of job. — Sandy Finnimore

Project SEARCH was founded in 1996 at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. It is designed for students either in their last year of high school or graduates in their first year out of school. UConn Health has seven interns in the 2022-23 program. By June the program will have graduated more than 40 interns over nine cohorts.

“They’re gaining real-life experience, hands-on learning, transferable skills, as well as exposure to a well-known name like UConn Health on their resume,” says Finnimore, who’s been overseeing Project SEARCH program at UConn Health since it started there in 2015 as the first host site in Connecticut. “They’re getting the trainings that the employees here would go through. It’s an opportunity they wouldn’t typically have.”

The program runs about 40 weeks, from August through May. The interns report every day at 8 a.m. for a morning meeting that focuses on skills needed to become and stay employable. Then they go to their assigned areas to work for next five hours. They reconvene around 2 p.m. for a wrap-up session.

“They’re actually in the job every day and they’re working on it,” Finnimore says. “When you’re trying to hone those skills, you need repetitiveness. It’s important to them. So doing it every single day really helps them get the ins and outs of each job, and it helps them learn whether they like that job or not. And the skills that they learn here are transferable to any type of job.”

Meet the Interns

Brett Hammond and Lindsay Reeves with a mail cart
Project SEARCH intern Brett Hammond joins mentor Lindsay Reeves on her mail route in the UConn John Dempsey Hospital. He says his favorite part about coming to UConn Health every day is “seeing everybody and being around in case anyone needs anything, like how to get to a certain department.” (Photo by Chris DeFrancesco)

The typical Project SEARCH experience at UConn Health includes internships in three different areas, each for about 10 weeks. For Brett Hammond, his first assignment was the mail room.

“It’s been a learning experience for me,” Hammond says. “We’ve been doing a lot of thank you cards, and they’re teaching us job skills, like how to keep a job, and budgeting.”

Like many in Project SEARCH, Hammond will be looking for his first independent employment experience.

“It teaches me how to be a better employee, and teaches me to be more diligent when I’m doing the mail, more focused on my work,” he says.

Interns are paired with mentors in each department. Hammond’s is Lindsay Reeves, a mail courier employed by UConn Health contractor Courier Express Inc.

“Brett’s been on the route with me, so he’s learning to do the route,” Reeves says. “I also showed him how to do lookups, which he does really well. He can put the mail away also.”

Jazmine Barber at patient check-in
Project SEARCH intern Jazmine Barber works the check-in desk in UConn Health’s Psoriasis Center. “Anybody that’s being trained, just be patient because it takes time,” she says. “And anyone that’s training new employees, just be patient. When you are working, patience comes with it.” (Photo by Chris DeFrancesco)

Check in at the UConn Health Psoriasis Center and there’s a good chance you’ll get a friendly greeting from Jazmine Barber. She has been learning the responsibilities of a clinic office assistant under the mentorship of Laurie Forbes, who’s been a COA for nearly a decade.

“I like it, because she’s learning and then she’s accepting whatever I explain to her and she’s keeping track of everything,” Forbes says. “She’s very good. She’s very outgoing and she’s very smart.”

Barber says, “If there’s anything that I’m stuck on, she’s there to help me.”

Barber already knows she wants to work as a certified nursing assistant.

“I have to build some medical field experiences, whether it’s doing housekeeping at a nursing home, checking in patients and checking out patients in dermatology, or doing receptionist work at a doctor’s office,” she says.

Back in the kitchen, Jordan MacFadden also helps with food prep, under the guidance of one of several mentors, including Willette on occasion.

Jordan MacFadden placing a tray of unbaked cookies
Project SEARCH intern Jordan MacFadden loads a tray of unbaked cookies in the UConn Health kitchen, under the supervision of mentor Ellie Cela. “She’s very patient,” MacFadden says of Cela. “She shows me and and I do it, that’s the kind of teaching she does.” (Photo by Chris DeFrancesco)

“I do like it, but it’s a bit of a struggle,” MacFadden says. “But I’m good with repetition, so it’s better if I do things over and over again to get it right. I’m hoping to get different skills in different areas. I’d like to do more things in the hospital.”

She says when it’s time to join the workforce independently, she’d like to help teach classes at an arts and crafts retailer.

“I like that the job coaches are pushy because I wouldn’t have become the person I am compared when I first started, and I’m happy about that,” MacFadden says.

“Working with Project SEARCH gives us the opportunity to help individuals achieve their personal best daily,” says Kevin Geraghty, food and nutrition director for Morrison Healthcare at UConn Health. “We believe that the structure and discipline of a commercial kitchen environment afford them ability to develop the life skills needed for candidates to be successful in their personal lives, their family lives and in their communities.”

Building on Success

Project SEARCH is always looking for departments that might be a good fit as intern hosts. Areas like food and nutrition, materials management, linens, housekeeping, courier service, the dermatology clinic, and dental finance historically have the most interns.

The Project SEARCH program at UConn Health was the most influential program that my daughter Cate, who has Down syndrome, had the good fortune to be a part of. — Noelle Alix

“We work very closely with the department when developing internships to find that mutually beneficial area that would help them and help us,” Finnimore says, understanding the impact mentoring an intern can have. “The mentor’s routine is thrown off and slowed down a little bit, and then the amazingness happens, and the intern starts to do better in their job. Their go-to person helps them with their struggles, and they celebrate with them their successes.”

When they’re not in their work areas, the interns are learning about job development, at a moderate pace for the first four months, then more intensively.

“January is when we really start hardcore job developing,” Finnimore says. “Our lesson plans are all focused around job developing and job searching, interview skills, and the ins and outs of that process. And then, if they find a job before Project SEARCH ends, they graduate early, they start. If they don’t, then we do job developing after. We’ll start a week after the program ends with having them come in and do more intense job searching.”

Life After the Internship

That post-graduation counseling helped Barlow get his food service job.

“I definitely knew at the start I had a ways to go before I could actually get a job, but through when I first started I did learn a lot and I learned a lot of skills, to get along with people, and also to just find solutions,” Barlow says. “And I do know that I have to always be on my best behavior, always come in positive.”

Kayla Cunningham cleaning the floor in the operating room area
Kayla Cunningham is a Project SEARCH graduate now employed by UConn Health as a housekeeper. Her internship assignments included dental finance, housekeeping, and linen. “I loved housekeeping the most,” she says. “That’s how I got this job.” (Photo provided by Sandy Finnimore)

Kayla Cunningham graduated from Project SEARCH in June 2020. She was able to get a job in housekeeping at UConn Health starting that December. She primarily has been working third shift keeping the operating rooms clean.

“I always had a passion working in the hospital and I love keeping patients safe and alive,” Cunningham says. “I love cleaning the hospital nice and neat, especially during this pandemic.”

Finnimore says Cunningham went in with the goal of getting an office job, but ended up really taking to housekeeping.

“Feedback from supervisors was always that they can’t find something wrong with her room,” Finnimore says. “She applied, went through all the right channels, and, because of her internship, they knew she could do the job. And she got it.”

George Moses oversees custodial services at UConn Health.

“Kayla is amazing,” Moses says. “She is a very important part of our team. She is treated just like everyone else. This young lady has literally grown up in front of our eyes.”

A Project SEARCH graduate who went on to competitive employment outside of UConn Health is Cate Alix, who for three years now has been an office assistant at Mintz + Hoke, an advertising agency in Avon.

“The Project SEARCH program at UConn Health was the most influential program that my daughter Cate, who has Down syndrome, had the good fortune to be a part of,” says her mother, Noelle Alix. “She was taught not only job skills in each internship rotation she did, but more importantly, she learned professionalism – an almost hidden agenda that provided Cate with the necessary and critical skills that enabled her to be employed upon graduation from the Project SEARCH program.

“We are so grateful that Cate got to be a part of this amazing program. Thank you to UConn Health for being the host site for a program that changed our daughter’s life.”

The Employer Wins Too

“We’ve gone in and far exceeded every department’s expectations of our individuals,” Finnimore says. “It helps change the culture a little bit. You have an individual who truly loves coming to work every single day, and that helps build the morale and the desire for their staff to want to be there for them.”

Housekeeping’s relationship with Project SEARCH goes back to the program’s second year at UConn Health.

“We have learned more from the interns then they have actually learned from us,” Moses says. “These individuals are very passionate, attentive and willing to learn.”

Geraghty, from the food and nutrition contractor Morrison Healthcare, adds, “All of the interns and staff who’ve come to us through Project SEARCH are a pleasure to work with.”

Marisol Cruz, education and development specialist, is UConn Health’s human resources liaison for Project SEARCH.

“I think it is such a benefit to have Project SEARCH interns working within UConn Health because it not only conveys and promotes an inclusive work environment, but it also encourages empathy, which is such a vital trait when working with patients and customers,” Cruz says.


Project SEARCH is a program through Favarh, which is based in Canton and is a chapter of the Arc, a worldwide organization that supports people with disabilities. Favarh has partnered with the Connecticut Departments of Developmental Services and Rehabilitative Services, and UConn Health Human Resources, to bring the Project SEARCH to UConn Health.

Learn more about Project SEARCH at UConn Health.