Autism advocate earns independence and full-time employment at Kaiser Permanente, Irvine

Alex Zavala, 37, of Cypress, next to clean biohazard bins at Kaiser Permanente Irvine.
Alex Zavala, 37, of Cypress, works full time as a housekeeping attendant at Kaiser Permanente Irvine. Zavala is an advocate for himself and others with developmental disabilities. Above, Zavala poses next to clean biohazard bins on June 2.
(Raul Roa)

As Alex Zavala moves swiftly through the halls of Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Irvine, he is smiling beneath his mask. He says hello to people as he wheels two red biohazard bins.

“Alex is probably the most professional person, he is just always happy,” said Michelle McReynolds, Orange County training manager for Kaiser.

Zavala, a 37-year-old with autism, works full time as a housekeeping attendant at the hospital. It’s a job he landed with help — and by helping himself.

“There is a program called Project SEARCH,” said Zavala, “that helps interns become employees.”

Goodwill of Orange County’s Project SEARCH provides non-paid internships to create work experiences for adults and teens with disabilities. With the support of Regional Center of Orange County, which provides services and supports for individuals with developmental disabilities, Zavala applied for and was accepted into Project SEARCH in 2019.

Alex Zavala works as a housekeeping attendant at Kaiser Permanente Irvine.
Alex Zavala is an advocate for himself and others with developmental disabilities.
(Raul Roa)

The program includes classes relating to work readiness and takes place at host sites like Orange County hospitals.

“I learned how to be professional and get along with other employees,” said Zavala, “by taking college classes like self-advocacy.”

The program gave Zavala the opportunity to participate in a hospital internship program, with the goal of securing full-time employment.

In October 2021, Zavala was hired at Kaiser Permanente in Irvine as a part-time employee in the Environmental Services department and by January 2022, he was promoted to a full-time position.

Zavala said he was excited when he was brought on full time.

“I just kept applying until they called me” said Zavala, “and the skills that Project SEARCH taught me helped me a lot.”

Alex Zavala pushes a biohazard bin.
Alex Zavala pushes a biohazard bin at Kaiser Permanente Irvine.
(Raul Roa)

Zavala’s co-workers and supervisors have noticed his work ethic too.

“His memory is just insane. If I show him once, he’s got it. It is just incredible to teach infection prevention, which is a lot of what he is involved in, and I don’t have to worry about him,” said McReynolds. “We go back and we watch and he does everything the original way I showed him.”

Zavala collects any biohazard bins that are full and switches them out for empty ones. He checks the bins on each floor. Then around 2 p.m., he makes the rounds again to collect towels and mop heads from other housekeeping attendants.

When Zavala isn’t at work he likes to play video games, but he said he tries not to stay up too late playing.

“I play PS5 and Nintendo Switch,” said Zavala as he rode the elevator to his next stop.

Zavala’s performance made him such a standout among his team that last month the Regional Center of Orange County awarded him the Spotlight Award for Self-Advocacy.

“Persons with developmental disabilities are driven to be productive members of society, and seek to have meaningful days like their peers without disabilities, which includes employment,” said Arturo Cazares, associate director of employment, Regional Center of Orange County.

“The reason I got the award is because I am great self-advocate,” said Zavala, “and by asking for help, being professional and having a positive attitude.”

Cazares said Zavala is example of how programs like Project SEARCH can help adults with disabilities help themselves.

“As Alex has demonstrated, when provided with the appropriate supports and a great employment opportunity, everyone benefits — Alex, Kaiser Permanente [the employer], others who have disabilities and the community,” said Cazares.

“I am super proud,” said Zavala.

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