High school students with special needs at Fairfax County’s Cedar Lane School are getting a taste of the professional world through internships with Vienna businesses.
Cedar Lane is one of the county’s two public high schools that accommodate students with emotional, behavioral, and social challenges.
Curtis Roberts, who has autism, is one of the students benefiting from the program. At Brooke Rental Center, a family-owned business specializing in party goods rentals, his responsibilities include doing inventory, painting chairs, cleaning rugs, and cutting pipes.
“I’m learning some of the different things that exist here,” Roberts, 19, says.
He pointed toward a chocolate fountain, a favorite item that he typically notes for inventory. “I’ve also never painted chairs before,” he says, later expressing how good it felt once those chairs were sent out for events.
“We’re teaching students soft skills — how to work with other people, keep track of time, stay on task, work efficiently,” says Anna Veltri, an employment and transition representative with Fairfax County Public Schools.
Veltri’s pitch to business owners was simple. For one hour a day, three days a week, Cedar Lane students will serve as unpaid interns assigned to general workplace duties.
The aim is to build work experience and independence, essential stepping stones toward securing jobs after graduation, particularly for students with disabilities who may face challenges obtaining employment.
Aida Roberts witnessed how her son Curtis grew confidence in such a short time span. “At the beginning, he didn’t want to come on the bus. I told him, ‘You need to prove to me that you can do this work because I bet you can.’ And now he’s like a shining star. He comes by himself now,” she says.
Mentoring Roberts at work is Damien Lloyd, a Cedar Lane graduate who was the first intern at Brooke Rental Center. Lloyd has been working full time for the business for more than a year. Their relationship is akin to that of an older and younger brother.
“Sometimes Curtis talks about random stuff and I’m like, ‘You need to focus on the work and stop talking,’” Lloyd says lovingly. “I’ve been showing him what tools we have here, what I know about them.”
Owner Jim Brooke hired Lloyd during the pandemic. “Damien has a natural knack for tools,” Brooke says. “He already knows the names of a lot of the tools without us even having to tell him.”
Brooke says Lloyd’s skills quickly went beyond the role of organizing and maintaining rental items. Lloyd had learned from his family how to do rewiring. He now rewires and fixes chandeliers, extension cords, and other electrical equipment the store rents out for parties.
“To be honest, we really underestimated Damien before he started. We knew he had a great attitude, but we didn’t know how many things he could actually do, and how smart he really is,” he says.
Vienna businesses that support the internship program include Panera Bread, Coco’s Sodas + Sweets, Alya Salon, and others located within 5 miles of Cedar Lane School. The mission moving forward is to expand to more places, but the challenge, according to Veltri, is convincing owners to take a chance on these students.
“It definitely makes you want to support businesses that believe in the program,” Veltri says. “I think employers sometimes think the jobs are not important enough. But just getting students out of the building and being with adults in the professional world is important for them.”
From a business owner’s perspective, Brooke says he believes the program is useful.
“It’s another avenue for finding employees. The one full-time employee we have has been absolutely tremendous. Once you spend time with [these students] and work with them, you’ll see where they can fit in, and they’ll add value to your business. I’m really sincere about that.”
Feature image by Riane Oquiza
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