Chantilly Chantilly High’s special education business partners certainly don’t lend their
support to the school because of the thank-you breakfast they receive each year. But everyone likes to be appreciated and, when it comes to this breakfast, it’s as heartfelt as it is delicious.
This year’s breakfast was no exception, and career and transition resource teacher Sue Collins gave the attendees a warm welcome.
“Your story is about making true connections that have a direct impact on our Chantilly students and families,” she told them. “You provide meaningful, work-based, learning opportunities and internships that build and enhance your students’ skills, confidence and self-respect.”
The school also acknowledged the breakfast’s sponsors. Pohanka Auto Group, Securis and Little Lords and Ladies provided financial support, and Bob Evans furnished the biscuits and gravy; Comfort Suites, paper goods and juice; First Watch, coffee, condiments, bananas and muffins; and Giant, a gift card to buy the fruit.
“Ten years ago, our budget was cut, and we thought our breakfast celebration
would cease,” said Collins. “We reached out to our business partner, Debbie Mowery, then a Bob Evans employee. She [contacted] Bob Evans, and they provided biscuits and gravy. We approached Jeremy Farber from Securis, and he provided a generous donation.”
Recognized, as well, were three entities that have partnered with Chantilly’s special education career classes for 25 years: The Fairfax County Department of Housing and Community Development, the county Park Authority/E.C. Lawrence Park and Bob Evans. Honored for 20 years as partners were the county’s Therapeutic Recreation office and Fairfax County’s Office for Children, plus several businesses for 10 and five years.
Among those attending the recent breakfast was Deb Barrett of The Women’s Club in Chantilly. A fitness center and day spa for women, it’s been a Chantilly High business partner for seven years.
“Chantilly students come to us to learn work skills, assisting with childcare for our clients’ children,” said Barrett. “It’s a great program — great kids come out of this school. It’s important to be involved in the community and help children see what their true skill set is and to empower them. Everyone needs an opportunity.”
Erica Cohen works for FCPS’ Career and Transition Services and is one of four teachers in the county who teachers education for employment for the office. She instructs two classes of 15 students each in computer, business and social skills.
“The kids come from Westfield, Centreville, Chantilly, South Lakes, Herndon and Mountain View high schools, and we place them in more office-related jobs,” said Cohen. “It’s a wonderful program, and Sue Collins has been phenomenal as a mentor for how to work with businesses.”
“We’re all starting to teach coding and more intensive computer skills,” she continued. “It’s especially good for students on the autism spectrum because it’s a strength of theirs for which they can be appreciated. One of the businesses that has been very successful in growing job opportunities for my students is Quest Diagnostics of Chantilly. A whole team of students does data entry for them. Even a nonverbal kid worked there, and the amount of productive work he did was astounding. And now we’re expanding our program with them.”
Regina Mauren, employment transition representative at Herndon High, also helps place special ed students in jobs. “We can’t provide job experiences for our students without our business partners,” she said. “We’re grateful for them opening up their work environments so students can become responsible workers.”
Agreeing, Maggie Contreras, career and transition service specialist at Woodson High, said, “This is a really important program because it helps get our students out in the community and prepare them for real life.” She said some 25-30 Woodson students participate, and Fairfax High students take part, too.
Regarding the Chantilly breakfast, Contreras said, “It’s just a wonderful event. And it’s great to see so many people in the community supporting our students with disabilities. And for the students, it’s huge. It gives them that connection with real-life careers. They especially learn the soft skills necessary for success in any job — such as social, interpersonal and communication skills — and they’re able to practice and develop them.”
Community of Faith United Methodist Church in Herndon is participating in the program this year for the first time. “We’ll be getting our student intern soon,” said the Rev. Beth LaBella-Foster. “We have a large, food-pantry ministry serving over 20,000 people a year in western Fairfax County,” she said. “Our intern will help organize the donations that come in from our corporate and business partners. That person will also interact with the volunteers bringing in the food. We have a lot of student volunteers who get service hours, so this seemed like a natural fit — and it’s a mutual benefit for them, too.”
Another first-time participant is Fairfax City’s Sundog Productions, which manufactures and prints T-shirts. Owner Allison Moser has a Chantilly High student named Ryan helping in the print-shop area. “He helps clean the ink off our screens so they can be reused,” she said. “And he also helps in quality control, looking for any problems with the shirts. He works five days a week, and we’re hoping he’ll be a long-termer for us — he’s a really nice kid.”
Telling why her company partnered with the school, Moser said, “We’re part of the community — this is what we do — and we need a lot of work done.” As for the breakfast, she said, “It’s fantastic. The food was wonderful, and I got to meet two other students who’ll straighten our inventory shelves. We’ll have four students all together, each working one hour a day.”
“Chantilly appreciates what we’re doing,” she continued. “And because we’re such an unusual factory — where people often do the same things each day — it’s often the right fit for these kids. And it helps with their self-confidence, too. Every job is important, and all our employees are, too. If they work hard, we’re happy to have them. We’re a big team and it takes everybody.”
Ken Crum is regional executive director of ServiceSource, which offers support services for people with disabilities, and this business has partnered with the school for the past couple years. “We provide job coaching and communication skills, supporting the skills the students learn in their [career and transition classes], so they can achieve employment in the community,” he said. “This program [with Chantilly High] helps connect students with community employers and become successful in those jobs.”
Crum said the breakfast is a wonderful idea. “It’s exciting to see all these community agencies come together to support a program like this,” he said.
Securis of Chantilly recycles electronics and shreds data and has partnered with the school for 10 years. “We receive seven or eight kids a year,” said CEO Jeremy Farber. “They tear own computers and we treat them like employees. We have training sessions and do evaluations. We want them to get the experience of what it’s like to be in the workplace.”
“It’s also to help them get the confidence that they can be in the workforce,” continued Farber. “A lot of kids question how they can work in the real world. But the type of work we do is very conducive to people with disabilities. It’s repetitive, and we’re not worrying about damaging anything, so they have a lot of flexibility. And it’s just a good way to give back to the community.”
Furthermore, said Farber, “FCPS is a great outlet for that. In my opinion, the teachers who work in this program are amazing — they’re the best. Over the past 10 years, we’ve developed good relationships with the schools and students, and four of our student interns have even transitioned into full-time employment with us.”
Basically, he said, “Businesses have a responsibility to provide opportunities for people with disabilities. They need employment and are struggling finding places to work. So businesses should look within themselves and see where there are opportunities to hire people with disabilities.”