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Goodwill program Project SEARCH puts 2 dozen on job in UPMC hospitals

| Sunday, May 25, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Katie Lashley, 29, moves a tray of surgical tools as she works in UPMC Presbyterian's surgical processing unit on Tuesday, May 20, 2014.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Katie Lashley, 29, moves a tray of surgical tools as she works in UPMC Presbyterian's surgical processing unit on Tuesday, May 20, 2014.

Katie Lashley still keeps the green, purple and blue maps she once needed to navigate UPMC Presbyterian's 29 operating rooms, a jumbled labyrinth she compares to Downtown Pittsburgh.

When she started work last spring, her bosses couldn't imagine Lashley, 29, would ever deliver trays of pristine surgical instruments to all those rooms. Her job was more simple: to put together the instrument trays.

But Lashley, who has Down syndrome, not only found her way around — she hasn't made a single mistake in a year of piecing together the intricate assemblies for Presby surgical teams, said supervisor Mark Lunz. He called her success a testament to Goodwill Industries' Project SEARCH, which has placed more than two dozen people with disabilities in UPMC jobs during the past six years.

Now Lunz is encouraging his employer to expand the program to facilities beyond UPMC Presby, Magee-Womens Hospital, Mercy and Passavant, where Lashley went through on-the-job training in emergency and respiratory units.

“Her attention to detail is incredible,” said Lunz, the director of surgical processing at Presby and UPMC Montefiore in Oakland. “Her quality is beyond excellent. She's so focused on the job; she isn't distracted by many things.”

The state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation is impressed, too, granting Lashley its Governor's Individual Recognition Award this month at a conference in Hershey.

“I love my job here. I love working with the amazing crew and staff,” said Lashley, beaming in hospital scrubs and a favorite Charlie Brown-themed hair net. “I just love it because I like getting to know a lot of people.”

A 2005 graduate of Olympic Heights Community High School in Boca Raton, Fla., Lashley moved with her parents in 2007 to Pittsburgh, where her father, Bill Lashley, grew up in Westwood. Now living Downtown, he said he and his wife, Terri Lashley, relocated from Florida to help their daughter.

“I thought if there's one place that's going to give her a chance, it's Pittsburgh. People will give her a chance because that's just the way people are here,” said Bill Lashley, 65. “It worked out even better than I hoped.”

Terri Lashley, 65, said the family discovered Project SEARCH through a counselor who helped with a job hunt for their daughter. The program began in 1996 at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and came to Pittsburgh in 2008, when Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania adopted the idea to move people with disabilities into paying jobs.

Supported by school districts, the state vocational rehabilitation office and the Allegheny County Office of Intellectual Disability, the effort in Pittsburgh helps equip eligible young adults to join the workforce through hands-on training. UPMC is the only employer directly linked to the program, although about 80 people in the region have participated on some level, said Ella Holsinger, a Goodwill vice president for human services.

“Obviously, everyone views their career and work as an integral part of their persona. I think that's the primary benefit, that they have a career that they can internalize,” Holsinger said. “It really helps folks be full, contributing citizens.”

It's also a chance to forge bonds, said Steven Strosser, 21, of Ohio Township, a Project SEARCH participant who works alongside Katie Lashley.

“I'm making a lot of new friends. I enjoy working with all the instruments and helping patients all the time, he said.

UPMC joined the effort to “provide opportunities for folks who might not otherwise have opportunities,” said Craig Stambaugh, vice president for talent acquisition. He said workers like Katie Lashley, who works full time, earn full benefits and competitive wages on par with rates paid to other employees.

“It gives us an opportunity to bring on board folks who have a unique skill set,” Stambaugh said. He said participants work in units such as radiology and imaging, equipment sterilization, linen service and food service, including at senior living facilities.

Stambaugh said he expects the program will grow at UPMC. For Katie Lashley, a sterile instrument technician, it delivers a blend of happiness and maturity, her mother said.

“She gets up every morning, and she's excited about going to work. She's very happy,” Terri Lashley said. “She's really found her niche.”

Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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