SEARCH yields answers

They came to celebrate one of the most rewarding years of their lives.

They left with an entirely new reason to be excited.

Eight Henrico County high school students who have forms of autism gathered at Bon Secours St. Mary's Hospital June 10 for graduation ceremonies to mark their completion of a nine-month program known as Project SEARCH, which provided them real-world job training and experience fulfilling various hospital duties.

Little did they know that they would leave the hospital that day with full-time jobs there.

The surprise announcement moved the students and their families – as well as hospital staff members – to tears of joy as they shouted, hugged and smiled.

"We have eight pioneers here," said Paul Wehman, the director of VCU's Rehabilitation Research and Training Center. "They've gone through a seamless transition – right from high school to a work environment."

Project SEARCH is an international program that started in Cincinnati in 1996 as a way to provide employment opportunities in healthcare for disabled citizens.

In Virginia, the program operates at eight locations; locally, it is funded through a VCU grant with assistance from the Virginia Department of Rehabilitative Services (which funds job coaching services through VCU); Henrico County Public Schools (which provides a teacher and two instructional assistants) and Bon Secours (which provides space, training, equipment and support).

Students were required to apply for the program; once selected, most reported directly to the hospital each day rather than to school, said Jennifer McDonough, the associate director of training for VCU's Rehabilitation and Training Center and also the SEARCH coordinator for Virginia.

Students worked in a variety of departments within the hospital and quickly became favorites of their new coworkers.

"People stopped me in the halls to thank us for having your children in this hospital," McDonough told parents during last week's graduation. "They gave us their smiles, they gave us their love, they gave us their enthusiasm."

The local Project SEARCH is unique because it's the only one – of 150 or more in the world – that involves a research element and only involves autistic students.

Through the program, VCU officials are studying employment models for people with autistic disorders, who suffer an 86 percent unemployment rate nationwide.

"The reason that we put the request in for the grant was because we wanted to show that people with autism can work and be successful," Wehman said.

The first Henrico graduates of Project SEARCH last year also received jobs at St. Mary's.

Henrico teacher Kathy Liamidis, who worked with the students on site, told them that they had been an inspiration to those who they worked with.

"We really feel like we are reaping the benefits of everything you have done," she said.

Though VCU's original five-year grant expires after two more years, the organizations involved with Project SEARCH locally have agreed to continue the program even if the grant is not extended.

"It is a wonderful program, and it is amazing to see these students grow," McDonough said.
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Challenger Day will get students with disabilities onto the field


Students from 22 Henrico County elementary schools will take to the baseball field Oct. 18 and learn how to field, hit and run the bases. The students will take part in Challenger Day, an annual event at the Tuckahoe Park Baseball Complex that introduces students with significant disabilities to the fundamentals of baseball. The students will also enjoy games, an art project, roaming mascots and a picnic lunch. > Read more.

Business in brief


Eisenman & Associates, Inc. employee Tracie Grady recently was named the 2017 Virginia Business Meeting Planner of the Year. Grady was chosen by a committee of industry leaders among 19 nominees. The award is a partnership between Virginia Business magazine and the Virginia Society of Association Executives. Its goal is to recognize the unsung hero of the association, non-profit, and business world, the professional meeting planner. Grady works with clients in a number of areas, including membership management, publication design, membership directories and convention/tradeshow programs. She has worked in the association industry, primarily focused on meeting planning, for more than 20 years. She is a graduate of VCU. Eisenman & Associates, Inc. is an association management and meetings consulting company. > Read more.

Lakewood to break ground on $64M expansion


A senior community in Henrico's Far West End is planning a massive expansion project.

Lakewood, located on Lauderdale Drive, will break ground on the project Oct. 19 during a celebration that also will commemorate the community's 40th anniversary. > Read more.

Henrico to hold Oct. 19 workshop on Route 5 Corridor/Marion Hill Study


The Henrico County Planning Department will hold a workshop Thursday, Oct. 19 for residents and other members of the public to provide additional input for a study of the Route 5 corridor and Marion Hill areas.

The workshop will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at John Rolfe Middle School, 6901 Messer Road. The meeting will include an overview of community input received so far and an explanation of how it is reflected in the study’s draft goals and objectives. > Read more.

Nominations open for REB awards for principals


Nominations are open for the 2017-18 REB Awards for Distinguished Educational Leadership, The Community Foundation’s yearly awards that identify, recognize and support leadership excellence in the Richmond area.

Honorees receive an unrestricted $7,500 cash grant, and $7,500 to be used for school initiatives. Nominees can be principals from public schools in Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover counties and the city of Richmond who have served in their current positions for at least three years. > Read more.

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Tom Leonard’s will again host its free Friday Night Movie at the Pumpkin Patch at 7 p.m. in the outdoor haybale theater. Tonight’s movie is “Sesame Street – A Magic Halloween.” There will be cider and hot chocolate. Friday night movies are held every Friday in October. Tom Leonard’s is located at 4150 Tom Leonard Dr. near Short Pump. For details, call 364-5800 or visit http://www.tomleonards.com. Full text

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