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Youth with disabilities participate in SSM Health internship program

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ssm health intership
Photo Courtesy of SSM Health

MADISON (WKOW) -- SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital has become the base for a revived internship program that provides youth with disabilities the opportunity to learn new skills, build their professional network, and explore potential career fields in healthcare.

"We allow them to explore different areas where we felt like they could be very valued and make a difference and where we'd need the support," said Sandi Ferrigno, the HR Director at St. Mary's. "We kind of just make a match and it's worked out really well."

The hospital partnered with the Madison Metropolitan School District for the program. For six weeks, the students work in a certain departments within the hospital. There are two interns in Food and Nutrition, one in Pharmacy, and one in Laboratory Services.

19-year-old Zakk Best is one of those interns. He lives in Fitchburg and says he has "many abilities whilst being on ‘the spectrum’.”

He's been working in the Lab Department for several weeks, and feels like his jobs are pretty important.

"[I] haul supplies down to the supply room and haul microbiology samples to micro," he said.

Laura Bubla is the Director of Laboratory Services, and agrees with Zakk. She said those jobs that may seem small to others are a huge benefit to her and the team.

Zakk has also been putting together respiratory kits that Bubla says they have to send out so their COVID-19 testing can come back to them.

"Our intern is doing things for us that are things that don't always hit our top priority list to make," she said. "Something that would feel small makes such a great impact to not only our day to day work, but to them as well."

Zakk works in the lab with Denise Higgins, a paraprofessional employed in the Madison school district.

"We kind of work together, but not because he can't do it," she said. "The people here have been just amazing, so helpful. He's just a regular part of the team. And they treat me like that, too."

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer than 20 percent of people with a disability were employed in 2019. Ferrigno says they're excited to give these students an opportunity that they may not otherwise have.

"Our organization has a very strong diversity and inclusion department," she said. "What we have done is made this part of our talent strategy and be able to really kind of expand and get some diverse candidates into our organization."

By all accounts, Zakk is thriving under that inclusion. Higgins says he's efficient, good with numbers, and a quick learner. Bubla says his excitement to be in the lab re-energizes her and the team.

And how does Zakk feel about the program?

"Don't be afraid to give it a try," he said.

Sara Maslar-Donar

Reporter, WKOW 27 News

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