RISE-ing Up and Changing Lives in Northern Virginia

A few months ago, I blogged about my career journey
And my recent half-time contract working with the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia on our Project RISE youth transition program. I haven’t written much on the program here, partly since I try to keep the Weekly Wisdom blog content relevant to a national or international readership, and also to protect the privacy of individual students. However, since our program recruitment is in full swing right now, I wanted to take this chance to share a bit about what we’ve done, get the word out about our future plans, and perhaps inspire others to consider developing similar programs. (Plus, this is my professional blog, and Project RISE is a big part of my professional life at the moment).

This past spring and summer, we served 18 students ages 14-21 who are blind or visually impaired and live in northern Virginia. During monthly interactive group sessions, our students explored careers, wrote resumes and cover letters, practiced professional interaction, and learned nonvisual skills for independent living and travel. We also had a lot of fun! Students learned from each other and from our dedicated blind mentors who are all either working professionals or older college students.

This summer, I had the pleasure and challenge of coordinating work experiences for nine of our students. These included competitive summer jobs, volunteering, or internships geared toward specific vocational goals. We had a student intern in a medical research lab, another at a commercial bakery, and a law firm. A fourth student had a music internship tailored specifically for him, and I will get to see him perform his original music tomorrow evening. It was challenging to find positions for students spread out across a fairly wide geographic area and with a variety of specific vocational interests. But the reward for the students, for us, and for the employer partners has been well worth it.

Since the program started in February, the growth we have seen in individual students is striking. I’ve observed shy students who barely said two words to anyone at the first session, going up on stage to debate with their peers and reaching out to professional contacts on their own. Students with partial sight who voiced discomfort or disdain for their white canes at the beginning began willingly carrying them to our events. Older students modeling self-advocacy for younger students and honing their own leadership skills in the process. These gains may not be tangible at the moment, but they will undoubtedly translate into success at school, at work and in life.

As a pre-employment transition program, we have to provide a specific set of services under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. Our curriculum may seem complicated, but when I think about what makes our program so impactful, the most important active component, in my mind, is something that is barely mentioned in the regulations. Yet it is something that resonates with my own past. The summer after 7th grade, I recall going to a day camp for nondisabled teens, coming home one night, and bursting into tears. Such melodramatics are very rare for me, and in fact, that was the last time I have ever seriously cried. It was a reaction to years of accumulated microaggressions and the sense that I didn’t belong among my peers, or even in the broader community where I knew few other disabled people. At that particular point, I had nowhere to go emotionally but up.
It was less than two weeks after that night when I first met
my blind best friend
And the tide began to turn. As I found a blind peer group, and later found blind mentors, I was reassured of my belonging. I stopped blaming my disability for frustrations in my life. And I gained the confidence to move beyond my comfort zone.

The community we have established in Project RISE is, in my view, directly responsible for the incredible gains we have seen. Many of our students may be the only blind or disabled person in their family, their school, or their local area. Some have grown up with the daily microaggressions of ableism. Others are losing vision and wondering if their dreams must be deferred. Through our community, they are getting the support to relinquish misconceptions and to embrace their identities as blind people. They are learning that there is a place where they belong and that their dreams are possibilities. As evidence of our community’s strength, 13 of our 18 students will be returning this fall.

Spurred on by the success of our first term, Project RISE will be having another full year of monthly meetings in the northern Virginia area. We are also expanding to offer quarterly meetings and mentoring to blind and low-vision youth across the state of Virginia. To learn more, check out
the Project RISE website
and
follow us on Facebook!

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