Ryan Brown, a Grade 12 student at St. David Catholic Secondary School, lives with an intellectual disability, but that’s not stopping him from learning new skills at a local hospital.

A program called Project Search at St. Mary’s General Hospital is teaching skills to high school students living with learning disabilities who are working in various departments, such as human resources and patient care.

Six high school students are currently working as full-time interns at the hospital, opening the door to potential employment after graduation.

“Honestly, this is the best way that I can get the experience,” said Brown when describing the work he does.

Brown isn’t sure if he plans to pursue a career in healthcare after graduation, but he’s already applied for an internship in patient care in the New Year.

He said he’s learning lessons through Project Search he wouldn’t find anywhere else.

The partnership was formed through the hospital, the Waterloo Catholic District School Board and KW Habilitation and comes as hospitals are stretched thin across the country due to chronic understaffing and high patient intake.

The program will give the students the opportunity to rotate through multiple departments within the hospital, lending a hand where they go.

“It will allow them to hopefully integrate into an employment environment working alongside people without disabilities,” said Sarah Farwell, director of communications with St. Mary’s Hospital. “They get the opportunity to rotate through three different internships in three different departments.”

The opportunity gives the interns the chance to learn but also gain an inside path to employment after graduation.

“This pool of interns actually does represent a potential pool of employees for us,” said Farwell.

Adding: “The program also benefits the hospital, building a crop of new staff for a healthcare system being stretched thin.”

Louise Pynenburg, shipping and receiving coordinator with St. Mary’s General Hospital, said she is proud of how hard the students have been working.

“It’s not just the work, it’s also the social aspect. As you’re working alongside them, you’re asking questions, they’re asking you questions,” said Pynenburg.