Constable: Intern program a win, win, win for staff, residents and participants at rehab center

Having already applied the soothing lotion to deliver a much-appreciated hand massage, Project Search intern Yendiny Flores, 21, runs a comb through the lush gray hair of 84-year-old Patricia Zimmerman in her room at Radford Green Health Care and Rehabilitation in Lincolnshire.

“I don't know what I'd do without her,” Zimmerman says, smiling as she reaches up to stroke Flores' chin behind the protective face shield all the health care workers wear. “She's very nice. I work with her quite a bit. I'm so lucky.”

Flores says she considers herself lucky as well. The North Chicago resident with a cognitive disorder has done so well with all her tasks at the rehab center associated with the Sedgebrook senior living community that she's been offered a job when her internship ends.

“I belong here,” says Flores, a 2019 graduate of North Chicago Community High School.

The mutually beneficial relationships built through Project Search grew out of necessity.

“Obviously, we are suffering from the same shortage that all health care institutions have been suffering from, which is a lack of staffing,” says Kim Akainyah, director of nursing at Radford Green. “It's been really challenging to get replacement nurses' assistants over the past couple of years since COVID, so we had to think outside the box.”

  Health care support specialist interns Azalia Tellez and Yendiny Flores carefully fold and put away clothes for a new resident at Radford Green Health Care and Rehabilitation in Lincolnshire, part of the Sedgebrook senior living community. Mark Welsh/

Nurses are overworked, and the CNAs, or certified nursing assistants, also can get bogged down attending to residents who need services.

“I help them,” says intern Azalia Tellez, 21, a 2019 graduate of Grayslake Central High School who lives in Ingleside. “I fill water cups and do laundry. I moved a resident in today.”

By performing duties that do not require medical skills or certification, Tellez and Flores free up time for staff members to spend more time on their jobs. One of the most challenging tasks is getting residents to make menu selections for their meals, and delivering the requested meals.

“It makes me feel proud,” Tellez says. She and Flores speak to residents and staff members in English and Spanish, know their way around the three floors of the facility, and can greet about three dozen residents by name.

Project Search was developed at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in 1996. Sedgebrook has been part of the program since 2016, providing internships in dining, activities, bookkeeping, housekeeping and other fields. But Flores and Tellez switched from other internships when the health care support specialist program was launched in February, says Annette Doherty, a Clearbrook employee and manager of the Project Search program and job development.

Clearbrook, the Arlington Heights nonprofit agency that serves more than 8,000 individuals with developmental and cognitive issues, teams with Sedgebrook, the Special Education District of Lake County or SEDOL, and the Illinois Department of Human Services' division of rehabilitation services to support Project Search.

  Helping nurses and staff members at Radford Green Health Care and Rehabilitation in Lincolnshire makes them feel proud and necessary, say Yendiny Flores, left, and Azalia Tellez. The women are health care support specialist interns. Mark Welsh/

Tellez and Florez, who take taxis to and from work that are paid for by their school districts, are in a classroom from 8:30 a.m. until 9:30 a.m., work at Radford Green from 9:30 a.m. until 2 p.m., and then spend another half-hour in the classroom.

“They have their own set of skills,” Doherty says, explaining how both have learned CPR, have been trained in ways to prevent falls and have learned techniques to help them deal with the residents, some of whom have dementia or other issues more common in older people. Instead of adding to the burdens of the staff, the interns answer the call lights residents activate from their rooms.

“Do they need the TV remote, or do they need medical attention?” says Doherty, who says the interns know what to do.

“This is the first year we've done it, and it was very successful,” Akainyah says. “It's been great from the moment it started.”

  Doing laundry for Radford Green residents is just one of the tasks tackled by health care support specialist intern Yendiny Flores. She also delivers meals, answers call lights, performs other duties and serves as a companion to residents. Mark Welsh/

The nurses and assistants “really appreciate the extra set of hands,” Doherty says, and they also find value in being mentors to the young interns. The residents embrace the interns.

“An intern can provide that extra care, extra attention to the residents. And the residents love seeing young people,” Doherty says.

All of the 50 or so interns who have participated in earlier Project Search programs have landed jobs, most paying more than minimum wage, Doherty says. Flores has a job offer, and Tellez expects to receive an offer from a facility closer to her home. Some benefits of the program are tricky to measure.

“Companionship is a big one,” Doherty says. “They have the extra attention. The students get really engaged. We develop relationships.”

Zimmerman echoes that sentiment.

“I'm so lucky because of the people who work here. They're super. They're super nice,” she says.

“It makes me proud and happy that I work with them,” Tellez says of the residents.

“It gives them meaningful employment, engagement and a purpose in their lives,” Akainyah says of the interns. “The nurses and CNAs get backup, the residents get extra attention, and the interns feel good about what they're doing. How can this not be good?”

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