It’s hard to be a super hero when you’re sick as a dog—or worse, a puppy.

Inside the pediatric emergency department at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, Jaylen Mitz wears a red-and-blue Marshall the Superpup suit. (Think of the cartoon Dalmatian on Nickelodeon’s PAW Patrol.)

Jaylen, 5, is holding a teddy bear in his left hand. This is flu season. Jaylen has a sore throat and sore ears. He’s with his mother, Alicia Watkins. It’s time for him to go home.

Tre’von Tolliver wants him to get there.

Tolliver, 20, is a patient transport specialist at Spectrum Health.

Tolliver repeats Jaylen’s name, then confirms it. He checks the boy’s birthdate to be certain he has the correct patient.

At 6-foot-1, Tolliver towers above Jaylen and leads the way. They pass where a young boy had been fussing loudly, worried about some procedure or simply struggling to understand things.

At the elevator, Tolliver makes sure Jaylen and Alicia know the fastest route to their car. He offers to escort them.

“Some of the kids might get a little bit scared, it depends,” says Tolliver, standing beside the nursing station in a burgundy smock and dark pants, the colors of his occupation. He wears an Apple watch, his own little fashion addition.

Jaylen and his mom don’t know Tolliver is more than a smiling guide. He also turns over patient rooms and does rounds with a cart stocked with coloring books and bright, sharpened pencils.

They also don’t know about the learning obstacles he had to overcome. And that he is the first graduate of a unique work program to find a place in direct patient care at Spectrum Health.

Project SEARCH

Tolliver is trained for events no one wants to face—including emergency resuscitation for children or adults. He knows the different compression-to-breath ratios and other important life-saving measures.

With some help from a dedicated nurse and a job coach, he obtained Basic Life Support certification for his job.

He’s a graduate of Project SEARCH, a national program that helps place young people with learning or other disabilities into the workplace. At Spectrum Health, it’s a joint effort including Hope Network—which assists people with physical, mental and social barriers—and Grand Rapids Public Schools.

The one-year, school-to-work program combines instruction, career exploration and hands-on workplace training.

In their last year of high school, participating students typically work three 10-week, internship-like rotations, tailored to each person.

The program began in 1996 at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and has expanded over the years to locations throughout the nation and overseas.

Spectrum Health is in its eighth year as a major local partner, graduating perhaps a dozen Project SEARCH students each year. The participants rotate through various job experiences.

Tolliver, who attended Kelloggsville Public Schools and Kent Transition Center, applied for Project SEARCH at his mom’s suggestion. He has four siblings—two brothers, two sisters—ages 6 to 17.

He pairs his work at Spectrum Health with a second part-time job as a greeter at the Meijer store in Caledonia Township.

Helping hand

In a typical shift at Spectrum Health, Tolliver helps anywhere from 40 to 50 patients, as young as infants all the way to age 17. The latter patients aren’t much younger than him.

He recalls the hard work he had to put in to complete the mandatory Basic Life Support test.

He had some tutoring and coaching help from Amanda Fleeger, day supervisor of the pediatric emergency department at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, and Amber Zelenock, a Hope Network job coach.

After some initial struggles, he ultimately passed the 25-question test. It will require re-certification every two years.

Fleeger has a missionary’s spirit. She recently returned from Uganda, where she volunteered with a medical clinic and orphanage in recent years.

In Tolliver, she saw an enthusiastic young man who is “very, very friendly.”

“He likes to talk,” she said. “Tre’von and I developed a really good relationship.”

Tolliver is characteristically modest about it all.

“I guess she heard I’m good with people and stuff,” he says.

On this day, Tolliver prepares to attend a beginning-of-the-shift “huddle” with other medical staff, for briefings on matters large and small. It’s obvious that he’s well-liked by staff. He’ll soon review patient discharges and retrieve his rounding cart.

For now, the costumed Superpup Jaylen is ready to go home.

In the PAW Patrol cartoon series, there’s a common phrase: “Whenever you’re in trouble, just yelp for help!”

The small boy needs a bit of help.

Tolliver is on his way.