There’s an inclusive-employment program in Connecticut with a 98% placement rate. Here’s how ‘there’s nothing that compares to it.’

Project SEARCH, a partnership between the Arc of the Farmington Valley and UConn Health, has meant meaningful work for dozens of young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

They’ve worked in housekeeping, pharmacy, the mail room and food service at John Dempsey Hospital and other departments at UConn Health during their 40-week training course. Almost all have been hired full time, either at UConn Health or at other businesses in the region.

The program has had graduates working for the Holy Family Retreat Center, Price Chopper, CVS, Mintz & Hoke advertising and many others.

Now, the Arc, known as Favarh and based in Canton, would like a second partner, preferably a large employer with varied job opportunities, to take on its clients.

“The goal is that they will be independently employed,” said Sandra Finnimore,” manager of Favarh’s Project SEARCH, one of 10 in Connecticut.

“We do a lot of lesson planning and lessons with them,” she said. “And we go through things like financial literacy, how to prepare for a job, how to maintain a job, interviewing skills, communication skills, problem-solving skills, chain of command, things like that.”

All but one of its 45 graduates have found employment, Finnimore said. “We have a 98% placement rate for all of the individuals who have come through our program, which is higher than the national average for Project SEARCH,” she said.

Calé Jonathan Barlow, 24, lives in West Hartford and works full time at UConn Health as a dishwasher while helping with other tasks in the kitchen.

“It was not an easy start,” he said. “I had to learn, but through it all I worked toward where I was getting. But I had to do it in a smart way. But they helped me become more independent because of the skills and my tasks that I learned. Eventually I got there. It wasn’t easy, but I worked my best at that.”

Barlow, who is on the autism spectrum, graduated in June 2021. He said his Project SEARCH internships, in housekeeping, the linen department and as a courier, taught him the skills that have helped him in his job.

“I had to remain in good health,” he said. “I had to have a schedule. I had to have a routine. So just that kind of stuff. And of course I had to get along with everyone. … What’s important and what’s not so important? Stuff like that.”

He’s been working at UConn Health for two years. “When I started I was part time and I’ve been working full time since March last year, but they pay me well,” he said. “I show up on time when I’m supposed to, so I just do my part. So I enjoy it.”

Cate Alix, 26, of Avon, who has Down syndrome, works as an office assistant at Mintz & Hoke. “Shredding is my jam,” she said.

“I would say out of Cate’s entire educational experience, both academic and work related … her year at Project SEARCH brought her so far,” said Alix’s mother, Noelle. “In that one year, there’s nothing that compares to it.”

Cate Alix likes to break rules, her mother said, and Finnimore was strict with her about proper behavior. “I credit Sandy Finnimore and that program to just teaching Kate work skills, employment skills, appropriate social interaction and communication at work, like how to communicate by email, what’s appropriate for … clothing, etiquette, the job itself,” Noelle Alix said.

“A lot of teachers just really liked her, and she’s got an infectious personality, so I think she got away with a lot from people and Sandy held her 100% accountable and to a professional standard every day, all day,” Alix said.

Cate Alix worked in a pizza shop and at her mother’s coffee shop, BeanZ & Co., which employs people with intellectual disabilities, before landing at Mintz & Hoke.

“They wanted to be part of the inclusive-employment mission, so they created a job working with Favarh and Project SEARCH. And one of the people they put up for the job was Cate,” Alix said. “She interviewed like everybody else and got the job, and she’s been working there for three years now.”

Cate Alix cleans the conference room, stocks supplies and, her favorite thing, shreds documents. “They have 100% embraced her as an employee of Mintz & Hoke like everyone else,” Noelle Alix said.

George Moses, who oversees custodial services at UConn Health, has a Project SEARCH graduate working for him full time.

“We’ve had quite a few individuals from the program come through our department and through my linen department, and they’ve all done a great job,” he said. “And they have mentors that are with them from Project SEARCH that work with them and along with my staff.”

He said Finnimore and her staff keep watch over their graduates too. “We can go back and talk to Sandy or one of our other staff members if we might have an issue, which is rare, and ask for their advice and they’re right here for us,” Moses said. “Side by side we’ve become a really good team.”

As for his employees, “It’s just amazing how we show them those life skills and they take them to the next level,” he said. “How to communicate, for instance, and how not to be afraid to say something.”

One Project SEARCH graduate has challenged doctors and nurses if they come into the linen room without sanitizing their hands, Moses said. “She’s not afraid to speak up.”

Expanding plans

Project SEARCH began at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 1996. Steve Morris, executive director of Favarh, said the program has been successful in two ways.

“First of all, from Favarh’s perspective, the program has been incredibly successful,” he said. “Not only is Project SEARCH the most successful program in the country for getting students with (intellectual and developmental disabilities) employed after high school, with an average of about a 76% placement rate, Favarh has been even more successful under Sandy’s leadership and we’re close to 100%.”

Also, Morris said, “because of our success with this program at Favarh, we have advocated and lobbied for the expansion of the program throughout the state of Connecticut. That hasn’t been easy, but we’ve gone to the Capitol to testify. We’ve lobbied for some extra funds to make it possible.”

Now there are Project SEARCH programs at several hospitals, Mohegan Sun casino, Goodwin College and the Darien YMCA.

Morris said Favarh would like to find a second host site to join UConn Health in taking interns.

“We struggle a little bit finding a host site, because it takes a certain size employer,” he said. “It takes a certain setting that has lots of different internship opportunities for students to try different things. So you can imagine that the hospital setting is pretty unique and that it’s really like a little city.

“We’re looking at some big companies that have a larger footprint and who have some of those food services on premises, things like day care, or big enough to have some of these ancillary services where our interns can gain experience,” he said.

Morris said the host site’s commitment is small, amounting to giving Favarh space at the site. There is no commitment to hire the intern, he said.

“And if we’re talking about impact, the more people with intellectual disabilities who are working, they’re more self-sufficient, they’re less dependent on state services than the same people were in the past,” he said.

“It’s really about a more inclusive and diverse society where everybody’s given the opportunity to work and make a meaningful contribution.”

Ed Stannard can be reached at