A new innovative internship program at a Virginia Naval station ends its first year in success

Naval Air Station Oceana hosted a graduation ceremony for eight interns who were part of Project SEARCH, a program connecting high school students with intellec...

Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

Recently, Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach hosted a graduation ceremony for eight interns who were part of Project SEARCH. It’s the first year for this innovative program, which connects high school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to internships and on-the-job training. To learn more, Federal News Network’s Eric White spoke with Jan Varney, who is an Instructional Specialist for the Virginia Beach City Public Schools’ Office of Programs for Exceptional Children and coordinator for Project SEARCH on The Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Jan Varney  So the Project SEARCH program is a Transition to Work program for students with intellectual disabilities. And the goal of the program is to help them make that transition from school to the workplace. So students are selected and then during their participation in Project SEARCH they actually work in very competitive internship sites on the base. So the goal is to get students moving towards competitive employment in their communities beyond high school.

Eric White  And are they taken from schools all over Virginia Beach or can they come in from other areas as well?

Jan Varney  Well, the Project SEARCH at NAS Oceana works with Virginia Beach City Public Schools. So students from all of our area high schools in Virginia Beach can apply to the programs.

Eric White  Gotcha. And what kind of jobs are they doing on the base actually?

Jan Varney  And how are the students selected in high school? What kind of testing do they have to go through in order to apply for this? So right now, we have had 10 internship sites with the base. So we’ve had students doing internship sites at the hotel, at the exchange, at the Jet Mart. Multiple places within the exchange: the provisions; the soft lines men’s department, women’s department, shoe department; the beauty salon and the barbershop. The Jet Mart over across from the college classroom and also the gym. Well so, the students are taken through a pretty rigorous interview process. Students are asked to apply. Once the applications are received, we do panel interviews with all of the applicants. And that’s like a six person panel interview. The students come to the interview. The panel is made up of participants from all the agencies involved, so there’s representatives from Virginia Beach schools, representatives from the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS) and Didlake. Students make application, they do the interview process and then they go through a skills assessment. And then based on the results of the interview and the skills assessment, invitations are extended to students to join the program.

Eric White  Yeah, and that’s a good segue into me asking you what is the Naval Air Station Oceana’s role in this whole process other than hosting? Do they have a say in, you know, the kind of jobs they’re doing? And also, are they on that panel as well?

Jan Varney  Yes, Oceania is also on the panel. They’ve been involved in the whole process right along with us. We obviously couldn’t do this without the support of Oceania. And they have been fabulous, fabulous partners, and have been very welcoming to us. They give us the classroom site. We have Senior Chief Amber Khoryati who is the liaison for us and with the businesses on base. They’ve been fabulous. I can’t say enough about how wonderful the base has been, how welcoming, how involved, how supportive they are of the program. It’s been a great partnership.

Eric White  Yeah. How did this all come together? Did you all go to them? Did they come to you? Were you there at the beginning as well?

Jan Varney  Well, there were some parents that wanted to get the Project SEARCH program to our area. So the parents were working from there end and I had been talking with representatives from the school district on my end for a couple of years, and it just kind of all came together. And it takes about a year to plan a program like this. So we had that planning year with everyone involved. You have to find your host business site and get your school team on board and get your voc rehab team on board. And so once all of those divisions and members are together, then you kind of go through the whole Project SEARCH preparation.

Eric White  That sounds like a lot of meetings and emails.

Jan Varney  Yes it was.

Eric White  What was the most difficult part about that process?

Jan Varney  What do you know actually, the most difficult part is scheduling all of those people to get at the same place at the same time. It is a process of you do a whole lot of work and then you wait for the responses and then you do a whole lot of work and then you wait for the responses. So you know as in planning for anything, you know, there’s a lot of give, and a lot of get, and lot of go and a lot of weight. And a lot of trying to get everybody together at the same time.

Eric White  A lot of polite nudging.

Jan Varney  We have had wonderful partners. I just, I can’t tell you enough how supportive this program is from all the agencies involved: Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), the Department of Education, the school system, DARS, Didlake. We have had all hands on deck throughout the whole planning process and I think that it has made all the difference in the outcomes for our interns.

Eric White  And as far as the interns themselves, obviously, you know, the point of an internship is to prepare you to enter the workforce. Are you preparing them to enter the workforce at the actual air station, or is it just to get them some job skills overall?

Jan Varney  The understanding is that the host businesses do not have to hire the interns. They are there to provide the support and the resources for us to do the competitive skills training. But we have been blessed enough that NAS has actually hired four of our interns. So you know, the host business does not have, to they are not required, it’s not implied. But just through being exposed to the interns and their good work ethic, they’ve found employees in them. And that’s the greatest success, I think that we can ever ask for is that the host of business sees how the interns have grown and established themselves and sees what good workers they are and what an untapped resource that we have in our individuals with disabilities who are in school. They are a rich, rich resource for our community employment.

Eric White  So it sounds like the first go around was a success. What’s the plan for the future? Are you going to add more businesses? Is there going to be a greater count of interns? What’s the idea there?

Jan Varney  Well, right now for next school year, we have eight interns joining the program. We of course, are always looking for more business opportunities and more internship sites on the base. My hope is to grow this program across the area. Like I said earlier, we have an untapped wealth sitting in our schools, with our students with significant disabilities. They are hard workers. They want jobs. They come to school every day. They report on time. I mean, those are great skills that all employers are looking for. So I hope that Project SEARCH grows across Virginia Beach. There are, I think, some places throughout the city that are ripe for programs like this. So my goal is to see it grow and flourish and add more programs to Virginia Beach.

Eric White  Well, maybe we can help with that. We do have listeners in Virginia Beach. How do businesses who are interested get in contact with you?

Jan Varney  So businesses can contact me, Jan Varney at Virginia Beach City Public Schools. And we will get together and look at their business and see how Project SEARCH can enhance their business as well. Because this is truly a partnership and it has to be a win-win for everybody, and so far it has been. It’s not just about benefiting the eight interns who participate every year, but it also helps the community. I can’t even tell you how many times the business partners at the base and the mentors for our interns have said how much this is added to their lives, how much leadership skills this has brought out of them as well. And so you know, when you start talking about feeling better about what you’re doing at work and bringing out your leadership skills and you being proud of where you work and wanting to show that to someone else, that is a community benefit all over the place. So Project SEARCH not only benefits interns, but it benefits families, and it ultimately benefits our economy here in Virginia Beach.

Tom Temin  Jan Varney program coordinator for Project SEARCH at Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia, speaking with Federal News Network’s Eric White.

Copyright © 2024 Federal News Network. All rights reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Related Stories