JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. —
As Project SEARCH’s graduating class took the stage, a mother feels comfort seeing her son walk away with a sense of accomplishment and security. Her worries about him, an individual with autism spectrum disorder, fade knowing he now has tools to join the workforce.
This is how U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Rhonda Gayle, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Inspector General assistant inspector general, felt when her son, Tommy Lindsey, graduated June 7, at Fort Eustis’ Wylie Theater with a job offer from General Smalls Inn.
Gayle said she enrolled Lindsey in the program hoping he would leave with some work experience from the internships, but the program exceeded her expectations.
“He would tell me about his day working at the General Smalls Inn, and he was excited to tell me about what he did there and the people he worked with,” Gayle said, “I was really happy to know he bonded with his coworkers because I had my reservations that some people might not understand his condition and treat him differently or harshly, but they treated him like family and I knew he was in good hands.”
The 2018 graduates are the inaugural class to participate in the Joint Base Langley-Eustis and Virginia Commonwealth University partnership program. Students in the program gain competitive employment through internships at organizations including the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, McDonald Army Health Center, Anderson Field House, General Smalls Inn and the Fort Eustis Club.
Project SEARCH researchers and Fort Eustis leaders initiated the program at JBLE to teach young adults with disabilities various job skills that can be carried over to numerous military installations; helping military members and their families deal with new duty assignments and establishing new roots.
According to Carol Schall, Ph. D., Virginia Commonwealth University Autism Center for Excellence director of technical assistance and Project SEARCH project director, more than 80 percent of young adults with autism are unemployed. Schall said after 10 years of implementing the program off base, about 70 to 90 percent of youth who go through the program gain employment within a year of completion.
“We wanted to take what we learned in the community and apply it to military youth,” Schall said. “This is especially critical for youth with ASD because military families must relocate frequently. An individual who works at the commissary here is going to be able to transfer those skills across the country and bring with them a recommendation from someone here on base.”
Schall said this is the first program in the U.S. that is uniquely built for military-connected youth with ASD, who face challenges with communication and social skills. The program is supported by years of research that provides structure and consistency through hands-on training at various installation internships.
The partnership between Project SEARCH and JBLE began with the Army Community Service’s Exceptional Family Member Program. The organizations worked together for one year to plan and prepare for the inaugural class. With support from JBLE leaders, the program’s first goal was to ensure a clear understanding of the role the program plays in the military community.
“Every step of the way JBLE has fully welcomed us,” Schall said. “When we asked for a space for the students to meet, we got a full classroom. When we asked for an orientation, we were given backpacks and supplies with a full military welcome. We have seen nothing but excellence from the JBLE leaders, and I think Fort Eustis will become a model for the nation on how to implement this project.”
Entering the workforce
While spending their senior year of high school training at Fort Eustis, the students learned real-life work skills, built personal relationships with coworkers, figured out what kind of jobs they liked and the areas in which they excelled. The students gained independence by walking from the Herbert Bateman Education Center to their respective internships and also learned to navigate the installation while practicing safety and awareness skills.
“After about 12 weeks of working internships at Fort Eustis, two of the students have already accepted permanent positions at their sites,” said Holly Whittenburg, Virginia Commonwealth University research site coordinator for Project SEARCH. “We are set to start a new class in September with students from Newport News, York County and Hampton schools. The program is already growing in participation, and we hope to reach many more students in the local community.”