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Fort Eustis Project SEARCH interns graduate

U.S. Army Col. Chesley Thigpen, 733rd Mission Support Group commander, and U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Muriel Macdonald, 733rd MSG sergeant major, pose for a photo with the class of 2021 Fort Eustis Project SEARCH graduates in the Wylie Theater at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia.

U.S. Army Col. Chesley Thigpen, 733rd Mission Support Group commander, and U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Muriel Macdonald, 733rd MSG sergeant major, pose for a photo with the class of 2021 Fort Eustis Project SEARCH graduates in the Wylie Theater at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, June 3, 2021. Thigpen delivered the graduation ceremony’s opening remarks and thanked the graduates for their service to the installation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Onyx Taylor-Catterson)

Yasmine Harrison, Project SEARCH class of 2021 graduate, delivers a speech about her experience in the program in the Wiley Theater at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia.

Yasmine Harrison, Project SEARCH class of 2021 graduate, delivers a speech about her experience in the program in the Wiley Theater at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, June 3, 2021. At the conclusion of her speech, Harrison announced: “Now I am ready to work!” (U.S. Air Force photo by Onyx Taylor-Catterson)

Thomas DuBois, Fort Eustis Project SEARCH coordinator, speaks to graduates and their families in the Wylie Theater at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia.

Thomas DuBois, Fort Eustis Project SEARCH coordinator, speaks to graduates and their families in the Wylie Theater at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, June 3, 2021. Since the program began in 2017, 28 students have graduated at Fort Eustis. (U.S. Air Force photo by Onyx Taylor-Catterson)

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. --

Fort Eustis Project SEARCH graduated seven interns at the Wylie Theater, June 3, 2021. This is the fourth graduating class of the Fort Eustis chapter of the program.

Project SEARCH gives young adults with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to intern at over 40 job sites on Fort Eustis. Graduates learn job and social skills needed to gain independence and stability in the workforce.

Thomas DuBois, Fort Eustis Project SEARCH coordinator, explained that Fort Eustis is home to the only Department of Defense program of this kind.

Since its inception in 2017, Project SEARCH seeks to mitigate the effects of a military lifestyle on employment opportunities for dependents with intellectual disabilities.

“I would love to see Project SEARCH on every military base,” DuBois explains. “Military [families move] a lot, and for people with disabilities, that’s even harder.”

Project SEARCH is a partnership between Virginia Commonwealth University, Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services, Department of the Army, and local area school districts. 

After graduation, DuBois helps the individuals find employment, provides necessary training, and checks in regularly; even when they have mastered the job.

“We never go away completely,” DuBois stated.

The year-long program starts each September following the Newport News public school calendar; due to COVID-19, 2020 looked a little different for participants. Interns began the year in a virtual setting, learning job skills and role-playing virtually.

Once restrictions eased in November, participants had a few days to acclimate to the installation; visiting multiple internship sites and identifying what they might want to do.

Interns work at three different internships throughout the school year. The first internship is the coordination team's best guess at what a student may like to do. Second, participants are encouraged to try something new and unfamiliar. Lastly, students are encouraged to pick something they would like to do long-term.

Some internship options include: Anderson Field House, General Smalls Inn, Fort Eustis Club, departments within McDonald Army Health Center, the Exchange, and the Exchange Food Court.

Donna Fontes, 733d Force Support Squadron/Morale, Welfare and Recreation director, and her team support the program by providing the majority of internship sites.

“Seeing the Project SEARCH student interns go through the program and grow in confidence, leadership skills, and then graduate to become gainfully employed has been as fulfilling for our entire team as it is for the program team, student interns, and their families.” Fontes said.

Col. Chesley D. Thigpen, 733rd Mission Support Group commander, expressed his appreciation to the graduates during the ceremony’s opening remarks.

“Project SEARCH graduates, thank you for your service to our service members, our DoD civilians, our retirees, and our families during this unique year,” said Thigpen. “Though times are uncertain, you've all continued to smile behind the mask.”

Guest speaker Melanie White, JBLE Fort Story Exchange general manager, expressed her gratitude to the program for supplying her team with great talent.

“Our partnership with Project SEARCH started in March of 2018, and from that time to now, we have hired four students,” White said. “Our partnership with Project SEARCH fits because they provide us with truly wonderful students who turn into full time associates.”

Three of this year’s graduates have received job offers on the installation. During the ceremony, each participant was given the opportunity to speak about their experience and say thanks to those who helped them along the way.

“I really want to thank my family, Project SEARCH staff, Fort Eustis, my supervisors, and mentors for teaching me about different jobs,” graduate Kendal Groves said.

“My first internship was at MWR marketing; I learned to make posters, commercials, light housekeeping, and to use the guillotine,” said graduate Maxwell Boozer. “I've learned job skills, how to focus on my work and greet others.” 

Graduate Yasmine Harrison said, “Now I am ready to work!”

Due to the program’s success, a second DoD installation will join Project SEARCH at Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia. DuBois’ vision for the program is to see it expand beyond Virginia.

Students interested in applying for Project SEARCH school year 2022-2023 are encouraged to speak to their high school’s local transition specialist.

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