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The Fort Eustis Project SEARCH Program Shapes Lives

By 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs 633d Air Base Wing Public Affairs


Project SEARCH is a large, international program focusing on individuals with developmental disabilities with the goal of training these individuals via internships to fill entry-level positions, which have tasks ranging from pulling filed dental records to fancy table place settings in preparation for special events, while also readying them for permanent job placement once their year with Project SEARCH ends.

Ft. Eustis is in a unique position as it and several collaborators, including Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), Newport News Public Schools, Hampton City Schools, the York County School Division and the Virginia Dept. for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, have partnered for the Fort Eustis Project SEARCH Program: a pilot program targeted to military-connected and military dependent youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

The program is a three-year-long Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program (CDMRP), grant-funded research study in its third year, which is investigating the Project Search plus ASD intervention model.

“The reason we elected to work with military dependent youth is because of the frequent moves military families face, they frequently miss out on the opportunity to participate in important transition activities like Project SEARCH,” said Holly Whittenburg, the Ft. Eustis Project SEARCH Site coordinator. “In some ways, because of frequent moves, military dependent youth are doubly disadvantaged by ASD and a lack of connections to the essential state and local programs that can benefit them. The purpose of this project was to see if, by training military dependent youth with ASD, they would be able to transfer skills learned on one base to a new assignment.”

There are a number of factors contributing to the uniqueness of the Fort Eustis Project SEARCH Program. The first, as mentioned above, is this Ft. Eustis-based research study is specific to military-connected and military dependent youth with ASD. Another is the inclusion of military support programs, particularly regarding relocation and deployments, which helps families get the information of, and connection to, job services in any given new location.

The final factor is the study itself.

“The Project SEARCH plus ASD model being studied here includes evidence-based practices for students with ASD, such as applied behavioral analysis techniques, the use of visual supports for learning, and social skills instruction,” Whittenburg said. “These practices assist students with ASD to learn the work and behavioral skills they need to be successful in the local labor market.”

The way the program works is through hands-on experience via three different, 10-12 week-long internships during a Project SEARCH student’s senior year of high school. The students in the program report to Ft. Eustis every day instead of attending school. The students then go to their respective internships at one of 25 local Ft. Eustis business organizations, which Project SEARCH coordinators identify based on a student’s individualized strengths, interests, and goals for employment. Work site examples include entry-level positions in the commissary, Exchange, various MWR facilities, McDonald Army Health Center, and the Tignor Dental Clinic.

“I used to work at Tignor Dental Clinic,” said James Spruill, one of the Ft. Eustis Project SEARCH interns. “I learned from it to say hello when I come and say farewell when it's time for me to go.”

Tignor Dental Clinic was James’ first internship. He was responsible for various tasks, which included red bin, where dental tools are deposited after use, pickup and delivery to sterilization, as well as pulling patient records for dental clinic staff.

“He’s kind of a meticulous person,” said Sgt. Lynnetta Stays, James’ mother, and an Army Reservist wheeled vehicle mechanic. “Even in the commissary he's back there straightening cans and I'm like, come on you don't work here. So, he has a knack for that order.”

James’ second, and current, internship is with the Fort Eustis Club, with Mondays spent at the McDonald Army Health Center café.

“I wrap up silverware,” Spruill said, “and then take used plates to the kitchen so they can be cleaned. I set up silverware and cups. I wipe the tables and restock.”

The Ft. Eustis Club holds a lunch buffet every weekday, as well as the occasional special event. James has worked during both of these high-tempo days, interacting with customers and even making some tips.

“We’ve seen some pretty excellent outcomes,” Whittenburg said. “All seven of the 2017-2018 Fort Eustis Project SEARCH graduates accepted offers of employment, and four of those positions were federal jobs here at Eustis and Langley. Also, 100% of the 2018-2019 school year graduates accepted job offers, and six out of seven of these graduates continue to be employed. Four of the 2018-2019 graduates are employed here at Fort Eustis.”

It isn’t a secret military families often face distress and uncertainty in times of deployment cycles and permanent changes of station. This is no different when a family with an ASD student is facing the prospect of leaving high school. There is, however, a silver lining.

“Most military installations have many entry-level employment opportunities,” said Whittenburg. “If military youth with ASD can be provided with the job skills and work readiness training for these types of entry-level work, then it opens up a lot of employment possibilities for them, potentially regardless of where they are stationed.

“What we also see from the high levels of federal employment offers received thus far by graduates is that the program is also meeting the needs of the employers who host interns. They are finding some great entry-level employees through the internship program. Our business partners also report that hosting interns has been great for employee morale and in supporting the mission of the organizations.”

The macro shows strong evidence of the Fort Eustis Project SEARCH Program’s viability. The micro, however, has a much more personal touch for James’ mother.

“I think it's going to make him a little more independent,” said Stays about her son. “I guess when you have a child with a disability, you are kind of protective. But I've learned…he's just James. He's just a regular kid. [He’s] going to get the same opportunities as everyone else, and we never taught him different.”

And this lesson of embracing opportunities is in keeping with the overarching Project SEARCH mission: preparing young people with significant disabilities for success in competitive integrated employment.

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