John Gratzle stood in the back as a crowd gathered in a UC Irvine Medical Center conference room to celebrate the accomplishments of nine adults with autism.
The ceremony last month was the first graduation for Goodwill of Orange County’s Project Search, a yearlong internship program designed to help people with disabilities secure competitive jobs.
Gratzle held his hands high over his head in applause, his cheers competing with those of the graduates’ family members. He shook his head in protest when his own name was called out, and he held back tears when he was handed a plaque signed by all nine interns.
“A great mentor is hard to find, difficult to part with and impossible to forget,” the plaque read.
“You guys are killing me up here,” Gratzle said. But he couldn’t stop smiling.
During the program, the interns, ages 22 to 30, rotated among departments at the medical center. Each department has a designated mentor to offer guidance.
Gratzle, 55, is the mentor for the environmental health and safety department, where he is a senior health physicist and laser safety officer. Three of the recent interns worked with him directly, and he got to know all nine while helping with the program orientation last January.
“We just wanted to give a special thanks to John Gratzle,” said Noelle Hales, the program’s autism enhancement instructor. “He has gone above and beyond to be a mentor to every single one of our interns here.”
Project Search has a large network of programs across the nation, all serving people with disabilities, but Goodwill of Orange County’s partnership with UCI Medical Center focuses specifically on autism.
Diana Nevarez, O.C. Goodwill’s program manager for Project Search, said it wouldn’t be possible without people like Gratzle.
“John has been with us since day one, advocating for their needs and making sure they are included in everything employees do,” Nevarez said. “He’s opened the door and held it open for them.”
Training others is a key part of Gratzle’s job at the center. As a certified medical laser safety officer, he does regular radiation and laser safety training sessions for medical staff. He’s also responsible for performing radioactive material leak tests, reviewing nuclear medicine procedures, monitoring the radiation exposure of about 600 employees and a host of other tasks that — written almost illegibly with dry erase markers — take up the entire whiteboard hanging in his small office.
Since he started at UCI in 2006, more duties have made their way onto the board, but Gratzle said he doesn’t mind as long as he “can keep the plates spinning and make a significant contribution to other people’s well-being.”
“That’s my job satisfaction — helping other people help other people get better,” he said.
Growing up in the small town of Lawrence in western Michigan, he took the opportunity to work at a local nuclear power plant when he was 17. It was looking for high school interns because of a federal mandate to boost personnel after the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania in 1979.
After completing a two-year program that earned him an associate degree in radiation safety and operations, he was regularly working six or seven 12-hour shifts a week at the plant.
“It takes a toll on you,” he said. “That definitely wears you down.”
After 20 years, he retired early, went back to school and decided to work in university medical centers.
“I wanted something where I could give back a little more,” he said.
He did just that at the University of Chicago, where he was a health physicist and co-wrote academic journals on research intended to improve care for people with prostate cancer.
He was working at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Michigan when he was recruited by UCI 13 years ago.
“I don’t have that, ‘Ugh, I hate to go to work every day,’ because I get to come in here and help people do their jobs,” he said. “Project Search is just an amplification of that.”
Gratzle, who lives in Aliso Viejo, jumped at the chance to get involved with the program because he has a personal connection to the autism community. His 27-year-old nephew, Noah, lives with his mother and has struggled to hold a job, Gratzle said.
“Noah’s getting the support he needs, and his story has a happy ending,” Gratzle said. “We want to make sure all of [the Project Search interns] have happy endings too.”
A key to ensuring that is helping them find confidence and a sense of independence, Gratzle said.
After the graduation ceremony, he congratulated the interns he mentored and met some of their family members for the first time.
“I’m proud of you,” he said to Bryce Haines. “This has been quite the year. And this is just the beginning. Don’t let it stop here. Keep going, OK?”
Haines nodded and smiled. He said he enjoyed the program and that Project Search taught him “how to communicate more effectively.”
Most of the graduate interns are already interviewing for jobs, and program staff members continue to seek employment opportunities for them as they prepare for the next group.
“When you can see what you’re doing benefiting other people, it makes you feel good,” Gratzle said. “To me, watching these interns develop and flourish, they’re all my nephew.”
Editor’s note: This is an installment of Unsung Heroes, an annual feature that highlights otherwise overlooked members of the community.