Graduation can be a little nerve-wracking for any family. But for parents of special needs students, that last day the school bus picks up their child can feel like they’ve reached the edge of a cliff.
“We kept thinking, gosh, this is going to be really hard. He’s going to be thrust out there,” Dianne Murphy, who’s 21-year-old son, Matt, has Down syndrome. He graduated from Loudoun County High School in June.
But a new partnership with the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, Loudoun County Public Schools, the National Conference Center and nonprofit organization Didlake is giving young people with disabilities a chance to hone their skills before they enter the workforce.
Project SEARCH is a nationwide program that provides 10-month unpaid internships for adults with disabilities, usually at a hospital. The partnership with The National is the first Project SEARCH program in Loudoun County and one of the first in the hospitality industry.
Nine recent Loudoun County public school graduates have been taken on as interns at the NCC, and they’ve quickly become an integral part of the 270-employee team. They work about 35 hours a week, rotating job assignments to get a glimpse of the various departments that work together to make the conference center run.
The National’s Human Resources Manager Helen Kendall described the interns as some of the facility’s most eager employees. “This is a perfect partnership,” she said. “They are emotionally invested and it shows in their demeanor and energy.”
For most of the interns, their post at the conference center is their first job. So it’s a chance to work on skills such as arriving on time, following instructions, communicating with coworkers and employers and asking for help when they need it.
Brianna Thigpeen, 21, said she’s loving the variety of tasks and a chance to meet new friends. Most recently, she’s spent her days alongside fellow intern Allyson Foster folding linens for The National’s 900-plus guest rooms.
Thigpeen, a 2014 Potomac Falls High School graduate, expects that what she’s picked up in the past few months can help her land her dream job. “I want to work in an office and do clerical work.”
“I think it’s great,” Jake Lewis said of his internship while stocking a huge refrigerator. The recent Briar Woods High School grad said he likes to stay busy and, from here, he has his sights set on working at one of his favorite places on earth, Toys“R”Us. “That would be the best because I’d get to see all the newest toys.”
Twenty-year-old Guillermo Abiles has also become an important member of The National’s janitorial team. He sorts recycling from the trash and helps keep the entire facility clean. “We’re so happy to have him,” said Ernie Camposeco, food and beverage manager at the conference center. He’s such a hard worker and always has a good attitude.”
Loudoun County Public Schools provides two teachers and Didlake provides a job coach to help guide the interns in their work.
Heather Brewington, LCPS transition teacher, said she can try to talk to the students about job skills—and life skills—in a classroom, but it hits home when they actually go to work five days a week.
“It’s mind blowing. The difference from being in a high school setting to a business in a community is night and day—it provides them with a real-life perspective,” she said.
Project SEARCH truly is a transition program, she stressed, because it teaches the recent graduates important skills before they land a job without the support of teachers or job coaches. “It’s a good time for them to work on job skills and get all the kinks out.”
Just two months in, and the internship has changed Matt Murphy, his mother says.
He’s learned to navigate the public transit system to get to work each day and how to work alongside the conference center’s grounds crew to take care of the 65-acre campus. He’s also taken more initiative at home, taking out the garbage, packing his lunch and even tidying up the kitchen without being told.
“He’s being pushed in a way I didn’t know he could,” Dianne Murphy said. “People assume they won’t be able to do it, but they can do so much. Companies can really benefit from having them and giving them a chance.”
Geoff Lawson, The National’s vice president and general manager, said when he was asked to consider becoming a Project SEARCH employer “it was one of those easy, 10-second decisions.” The program aligns with the center’s core values, to connect and serve the community that surrounds its campus.
He’s encouraging other businesses to think about providing internships for special needs adults with the help of the program. Lawson expects The National will host Project SEARCH interns again next year.
“It’s a win-win. We’ve enjoyed having them, and we get a chance to help some young people to have a better life down the road,” he said. “They’re part of the team now.”
Learn more at projectsearch.us.