On June 14, the first internship class of the Project SEARCH site at Naval Air Station (NAS) Oceana in Virginia Beach graduated from the program. The eight graduates are students with disabilities from Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) who are military-dependent or military-connected and in their last year of high school.
NAS Oceana is the first Navy installation to host Project SEARCH, an international program that prepares people with disabilities aged 18 to 21 for success in competitive integrated employment. The Project SEARCH program at NAS Oceana is a collaborative effort between Didlake, NAS Oceana, VBCPS, Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS), Virginia Department of Education, and Virginia Commonwealth University Rehabilitation Research and Training Center.
As the employment services partner at NAS Oceana and three other Project SEARCH sites, Didlake provides on-site skills training and, upon successful graduation, one-on-one job coaching to help interns find employment. The program at NAS Oceana launched last September as Didlake celebrated its 10th anniversary as a Project SEARCH partner at UVA Prince William Medical Center in Manassas.
“The best part of Project SEARCH is seeing the development of the interns. We see from start to finish how they build their independence, attitudes and confidence,” said Jessica Klein, Program Manager I, Didlake. “The base opened their arms to us. The departments we’re working with are so excited to have interns help.”
Bringing Project SEARCH to NAS Oceana
Senior Chief Amber Khoryati is an Air Traffic Controller on the base. She may not have known what to expect when she was asked in the summer of 2020 to take on the Project SEARCH Business Liaison role as a “collateral duty,” but says she “couldn’t imagine it any differently.”
In her role, Khoryati spent a lot of time in meetings with the departments and businesses on base, explaining the program and its many benefits for the base and the interns. She sought departments to host interns, and collaborated with them and the partners throughout the year.
“Our Project SEARCH interns improve morale everywhere they go. It is really so rewarding to see the growth in the interns throughout the year,” Khoryati said.
NAS Oceana began exploring Project SEARCH at the request of the Base Commanding Officer/Secretary of Defense and Affairs.
“This area is a huge hub of military families and students. The base was very interested in the program and helping out military families with needs,” Khoryati explained. “It was challenging to start something like this, especially in a COVID world.”
But, by all accounts, it was well worth the effort.
“It is groundbreaking for a Naval Air Station to have a program like this. It’s a win-win for all. Students get training and experience while the Installation is finding talented workers and learning about individuals with disabilities,” Khoryati said.
Trent Gabriel, Special Education ID Teacher, agrees.
“From the Virginia Beach Public Schools perspective, this is a game changer. We have something similar, but it’s not as extensive. I had wished we could do more for the work experience program; I always felt like it was not enough,” said Gabriel, who has worked in the public-school system for 26 years, about half of that in high schools.
Gabriel had just left his job at a local high school when a co-worker fortuitously shared the job ad for the Project SEARCH position. “I live in Hampton Roads and had heard of Project SEARCH since it has been in Norfolk for a while. I was thinking we needed Project SEARCH here to teach life skills – this is what I was talking about wanting to do and here it is. I put in my application and that was it,” he said.
Classroom Training and On-the-Job Experience
The school year started with a couple of weeks of classroom training in early September. The students bonded as a team while learning job skills and independent living skills like how to use public transportation to get to work, communicating using a phone and being safe when walking around the base. Then came workshop week, when students observed various departments to learn about potential internship rotations. The program partners then matched the students with departments based on their skills and interests. The first rotations started the end of September and the interns completed three rotations, about three months each, throughout the year.
Gabriel led class time for about an hour each morning to work with the interns on skill development and Individualized Education Plan (IEP) objectives. The students then spent four-to-five hours working at their assigned departments, with support from Krystol Greene, the on-site Didlake Skills Trainer, as well as Gabriel and two other skills trainers from VBCPS, Ron Newell and Annette Montes. Each day concluded back in the classroom for a group discussion about how the day went, any changes that needed to be made and skills to develop.
Interns rotated throughout a variety of departments throughout the base. At the Navy Exchange (NEX), interns worked in the barber shop and salon, consumables (grocery/medicine/toys), self-service, lawn and garden, shoes, soft-lines (clothing) and provisions (snacks/pre-made sandwiches), stocking products and assisting customers. At the Flight Line Fitness Center (gym), interns took turns greeting visitors from the front desk and cleaning gym equipment and basketball courts. In Outdoor Recreation, an intern cleaned and organized outdoor equipment available for rent like tents, chairs and canoes. At the Navy Gateway Inns & Suites, interns worked in housekeeping and linens. At the Jet Mart, interns worked on the register, and organized clothing and electronics.
“The interns are eager to learn and work. They got their tasks done and kept finding more. Some of them started out shy but now they say ‘Hi, Ms. Amber’ and ask me how my day is going and how is my family. They have blossomed out of their comfort zone,” Khoryati said.
Project SEARCH also benefits the interns in their family life.
“We’re with the interns all day every day, but we really find out the differences being made when we hear from the families about what their students are saying. ‘Hey dad or mom, I’ve got it.’ They start explaining what they did during their day, not just saying it was good,” Greene said. “The students are all military-affiliated so this experience gives them something in common to talk about with their parents – seeing the jets or something they are doing on base, or the departments themselves.”
Today, the new graduates are ready to take the skills they learned into competitive integrated employment. The base hired three interns in the Navy Exchange — Jet Mart, provisions and consumables. One intern secured a job at the local YMCA. Didlake is continuing to work with three other interns to secure employment. One intern will work with DARS on additional vocational rehabilitation.
“It’s bringing diversity into the workforce and helping their staff become more open to different communication styles. Someone might do better with verbal instructions and someone might do better with modeling those instructions. Civilians and active duty members are learning about Project SEARCH and people with disabilities. We received a lot of positive feedback from department heads saying they are making a good impression and setting the tone. Employees are modeling for the interns and interns are modeling for the employees,” Greene said.