Deep in the labyrinthine basement of the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, El-Fayad-Ben Ibrahim worked one Thursday afternoon assembling sheets of paper into packets, one of only eight interns allowed in the hospital amid the pandemic.

The Sam Houston High School senior works at the hospital as part of a transition-to-work program for students with intellectual and other disabilities called Project SEARCH, in which they learn skills they can use in almost any industry after completing their internships.

The interns have always been key to hospital operations, whether they’re sorting items in the central supply office or folding towels in the linens department, but this year they have proved to be invaluable during the coronavirus pandemic, when no other volunteers are allowed in the hospital, said Katherine Cox, volunteer services manager for Children’s Hospital.

“The departments don’t want them to leave,” she said. “They are instrumental to them.”

Project SEARCH started in Cincinnati in 1996, but it came to San Antonio five years ago as part of a collaboration among San Antonio Independent School District, Texas Workforce Solutions, Alamo Area Council of Governments, Professional Contract Services Inc., Workforce Solutions Alamo, and host business sites, including Amazon, hotels, and restaurants, said Lisa Stilling Alvarado, SAISD special education coordinator. The international program has more than 600 sites in 48 states and 10 countries, with 26 in Texas. Eight SAISD students are participating in the program this school year.

Throughout the school year, the students who have completed their coursework or graduated interview for unpaid jobs at the hospital and work for 10 weeks in three different internships, learning workplace skills along the way, including how to format a resume and apply for jobs. Interns can start looking for employment outside the program after their second rotation, but they are discouraged from working seasonal jobs, jobs that pay below minimum wage, or jobs with fewer than 16 hours a week. The program aims to help the interns find jobs that help them sustain as much independence as possible, Stilling Alvarado said.

The Project SEARCH program includes daily classroom time when students learn important skills such as interview preparation and filling out applications for jobs. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio is the only business partner offering Project SEARCH internships for SAISD students this school year, district spokeswoman Vanessa Barry said. In past school years, students have interned at other companies.

The hospital print shop is Ibrahim’s second internship rotation. He spent 10 weeks in his first rotation working in the central supply office, where he learned to organize items by expiration date and in numerical and alphabetical order. He also made deliveries within the hospital.

Ibrahim said his favorite part of working in the print shop was that it kept him busy. He hopes to transfer the skills he learns through Project SEARCH to work at H-E-B.

Jean Alvarado, the print shop team lead, said Ibrahim is a “blessing” when it comes to handling the workload in the print shop, which provides services for all the hospital’s downtown facilities.

“The extra set of hands definitely helps in the day-to-day operations,” he said.

An internship sometimes can lead to a job. Pedro Salinas, who graduated from Lanier High School, finished his second internship rotation in 2018 and applied for a job at the hospital in the linens department, where the strong smell of laundry detergent lingers over piles of crisp white towels and sheets.

Stilling Alvarado said Salinas was the first Project SEARCH intern in San Antonio to find employment after his second internship rotation. Salinas often stops and talks to the interns, offering encouragement and friendship.

In the linens department one afternoon, Salinas chatted with Jonathan Zuniga, an intern new to the department and a Jefferson High School graduate, as holiday music played on a radio near a small, white Christmas tree adorned with colorful lights and tinsel. Zuniga had just completed his first rotation in housekeeping, where he cleaned tables and chairs in the lobby, the chapel, and the cafeteria.

Jonathan Zuniga works in the linens department, where he folds clean and new towels to be delivered to patients throughout the hospital. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The hospital receives a delivery of clean linens every morning, which are washed off-site by a different company. Zuniga’s job is to help put away the linens, making sure none are torn or stained before he folds and delivers them to carts and closets on each floor of the hospital. 

Daniel Rodriguez, linens team lead, said Zuniga catches on quickly to each task. The only issue he has with Zuniga is the Dallas Cowboys face mask the intern wears, which Rodriguez good-naturedly teases him about.

Salinas said he loves working in the linens department because he likes to be really busy and he likes how neat and orderly everything is. His dad usually drops him off for work in the morning, and in the afternoon he rides the bus home, just a few minutes away from the hospital. He said riding the bus by himself gives him confidence and allows him to be more independent.

All interns are taught how to ride the bus, Stilling Alvarado said. When they are ready, they start riding the bus by themselves, which becomes easier over time as they gain more confidence.

The other interns work in different areas of the hospital, such as central supply or the front desk. Stilling Alvarado said many other Project SEARCH work sites in the state did not allow interns to work this year because of the pandemic, but the interns here have been given more responsibilities and more opportunities to grow. She said the hospital is eager to have the interns working in various roles.

“This year’s cohort is phenomenal,” she said. “It’s been exciting to hear what they’ve been doing.”

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.