A typical day for Meredith Kieffer might include delivering beverages to patients at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, folding washcloths and helping patients discharge from the hospital. 

“The best part is I get to spend time with patients and discharge them to families,” said the 19-year-old with Down syndrome, who said she is fulfilling her lifelong goal of working in a hospital. 

Kieffer is one of 11 interns at Mayo Clinic participating in an effort for students with intellectual or learning disabilities. Project SEARCH High School Transition Program is led by former special education teacher Tim Burns.  

The unpaid internship that runs for nine months and follows a similar schedule to the Eau Claire school district strives to improve employability for adults with disabilities.

From a cozy classroom in the basement of Mayo Clinic, Burns explains that Kieffer’s job working with patients, doctors and nurses is her way of giving back after having spent time in the hospital as an infant with a serious heart defect that left her family unsure if she would survive.

Her mother, Carla Kieffer, said: “She ran across a lot of kind doctors and nurses. It’s a nice way for her to repay some of that kindness.”

Meredith Kieffer’s confidence level has skyrocketed, her conversation skills have improved and she’s taking more initiative, Carla Kieffer said of the impact of the program, which is run through Mayo Clinic and further supported by organizations including L.E. Phillips Career Development Center.

Preparation for the program began early last year after the project got the green light from the state. According to Robyn Criego, director of special education at the Eau Claire school district, Project SEARCH has 400 sites around the world. The process to license the program is competitive, she said.

Eight men and three women, including Meredith Kieffer, work from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. each weekday before reconvening in the classroom to close out the day. Chosen from a pool of applicants, the interns from the Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls, Menomonie and Colfax school districts will work at their positions for 10 weeks before trying something new. They will have rotated three jobs by the time they graduate from the program in spring.

With assistance from job coaches provided by L.E. Phillips Career Development Center, the young adults receive instruction for an hour each day before heading off to their jobs in the hospital. During that initial period they are taught skills such as learning to recognize the meaning of facial expressions and the importance of good eye contact with their supervisors and patients. 

“Some people are learning the technical skills of nursing,” said Jennifer Steffes, a career awareness specialist with Mayo. “They’re learning the technical skills of employment. This is a teaching hospital, so it’s a perfect fit.”

A whiz at working her iPad, 21-year-old Amanda White explained through an application called Proloquo2go — which voices the words she types — the tasks that she completes while working in the hospital’s volunteer services center, gift shop and library.

A cook at heart, Steven Folstad smiled when he said his favorite job is washing dishes. It may be a challenge to get his classmate Jackson Rasmussen to shift jobs from his current position of helping adults provide child care for employees’ children ages 5 and 6 — something he feels called to do.

Alberto Larabee, 22, who graduated from Memorial High School, works as a security intern. His duties include clearing the helipad to prepare for a helicopter’s landing. There can’t be any sticks or other types of debris on the landing site, he explained.

“They don’t have a disability, but a different ability,” Burns said. “The reason they’re here is they have a gift.”

Abby Jannett began job coaching Kieffer in February and learned about the program after Kieffer mentioned she was accepted as an intern.

“Now we’re both working here,” Jannett said.

Without such a program, Burns said, the outlook for some adults living with disabilities might not be positive or independent. Some of his former students still live at home. Others he has seen are homeless.

While program leaders admit this program has challenges, as this is its first year of implementation, they are proud of the work their interns have accomplished.

Apart from a few strange glances, patients are receptive to the care they receive from the young adults in the program, who are impacting staff too. 

“We’re so proud of our staff at Mayo,” Steffes said. “They’ve embraced this program from the get-go.” Some have expressed that the intern’s presence in their department has changed the atmosphere for the better. 

Students qualify for the program as long as they are 18 or older, have completed all their credits necessary for graduation and meet eligibility requirements for the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation services. 

“They’re wonderful about embracing these interns and giving them a fair shot,” Carla Kieffer said.

Mayo Clinic is hosting an open house beginning at 5:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 7, to families and students interested in applying for an internship with Project SEARCH. For more information email Criego at rcriego@ecasd.us.

Contact: 715-833-9206, elizabeth.dohms@ecpc.com, @EDohms_LT on Twitter