Dr. Scott Rathgaber is CEO of Gundersen Health System. Jacob Anderson is a fairly new intern just out of high school. But dollars to doughnuts, Anderson probably could rescue Rathgaber if the CEO got lost in Gundersen’s labyrinthine hallways.


Anderson has a keen sense of direction and has proved to be a quick study during just a few weeks as an intern in the security office of the hospital at 1900 South Ave. in La Crosse, his mentors say.

The smiling redhead is one of eight students in Gundersen’s first wave of interns through Project Search, a national program founded at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 1996 that gives students with developmental and intellectual disabilities training so they will be able to land jobs.

Rathgaber, no slouch himself — having won RSVP’s “Who Will Be Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” fundraising contest with partner Asher Mask of Spence Elementary School in April — said Gundersen employees are gleaning as much from the interns as the students are learning from staffers.

“They bring something to us,” Rathgaber said Tuesday during a program at which the interns were introduced before they demonstrated their developing skills.

“They have a value in bringing their energy and excitement to learn. … We are imparting skills, but we get back, too,” he said.

Gundersen’s participation in Project Search helps fulfill its mission of improving the community’s health, the CEO said.

“The goal is to have them graduate with skills to obtain and retain a job,” Rathgaber said. “Jobs and education are a part of health.”

At Gundersen, interns receive classroom instruction as well as training in the departments.

Laura Anderson Mike Tighe

Laura Anderson, who is not related to Jacob and is in her 22nd year as a special education teacher in the Holmen School District, is the classroom instructor for the interns. Two skills trainers help her, and they all check in with the students’ Gundersen mentors on skills development.

“We provide instruction in all aspects of vocational education,” Laura said. “We teach the soft skills, such as watching other people” to learn.

“We observe, offer additional training and suggestions for improvement as needed, and accommodations as may be needed,” said Laura, who is stationed at Gundersen and is the primary contact between the interns and hospital department staffers.

Technically a graduate of Holmen High School but participating in Project Search as an extended learning opportunity, Jacob is one of five Holmen interns, while the others are from La Crosse, Onalaska and Independence school districts.

“Jacob’s really good at way-finding,” said KJ Blanton, Gundersen’s security supervisor.

Echoing that assessment were Laura, who said Jacob has a “phenomenal memory,” and Jon Speltz, the security officer who is one of Jacob’s mentors.

“Jacob is like a sponge. He knows the building very well, and he works independently very well,” Speltz said.

Those traits come in handy as Jacob goes about his duly appointed rounds checking fire extinguishers to make sure they are in proper working order, accompanying Speltz to make bank deposits, patrolling parking lots for violators and logging items in to the lost-and-found system.

Tuesday morning, he was logging in the hundred dollar bill somebody had found and turned in instead of yielding to what must have been a temptation to pocket. Nearby sat a ball of keys and fobs that Speltz estimated contains 75 to 100 keys.

For his part, Jacob wonders how so many people can lose their keys in the hospital — not to mention how they got home. Equally puzzling is the baby stroller security staffers found, although Speltz noted that it wasn’t holding a lost baby.

Asked what his favorite part of the job is, the Jacob grinned as he responded, “Writing tickets.” (Be careful where you park, Dr. Rathgaber, because your supervisor will be notified if you get a ticket.)

Jacob also participated in Gundersen’s “Stop the Bleed” program, learning how to apply a tourniquet and bandage a wound in case he happens upon an emergency situation.

“We trust him,” Speltz said. “He not only learns from us, but he’s taught us a lot about being grateful for what we have.”

Laura praised Gundersen staffers for their nurturing attitudes, adding, “These guys (in security) are over the top.”

Jacob Anderson works in the security office at Gundersen Health System. Anderson, a Holmen High School graduate whose intern duties at Gundersen include checking and maintaining fire extinguishers, logging lost-and-found items, especially likes writing tickets for parking lot violators, he said mischievously. Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune

The interns rotate among other departments such as pharmacy and laundry during the nine-month program and are trained just as if they were new hires at Gundersen.

Kelsey Stoos, who also is from Holmen and is working a stint as a technician in the hospital’s in-patient pharmacy, said she likes the technological aspect best.

Stoos demonstrated how she logs a patient’s prescription into a computer, then moved to the next room where she located it on a large carousel that stores virtually every medication the hospital might need. She retrieved the medication and double-checked it before a pharmacist also checked it, as is done for all technicians.

Stoos said she especially likes compounding, which involves mixing ingredients for a medication that may not be available from a manufacturer or one that is in pill form but needs to be turned into powder for a drink.

“She catches on very quickly,” said Miranda Peek, clinical manager for the pharmacy support system.

“The interns really have the same work ethic as our employees and make the same adjustments as new employees,” Peek said.

Rathgaber described Project Search as “a partnership, because we couldn’t do it alone.” Collaboration with the Holmen School District, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development and the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation is the key to success, said Rathgaber.

The only drawback is that the hospital has so many departments that also want interns after seeing their value, said Rathgaber, encouraging expansion.

As for Jacob, he has experienced a sea change between his freshman year in high school, when he didn’t talk to anybody, and last year, when he helped train other students, Laura said.

Jacob, who initially balked at even being involved in Project Search and then second-guessed himself after signing up, now wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s the best thing I could have done for my life,” he said.