When Elizabeth Howley began teaching students with special needs about five years ago, she noticed a disconnect between the skills they would need after graduation and the curriculum they were taught.
“I remember a young girl with severe autism that the school was trying to teach the rock cycle to, but she didn’t even know her home phone number,” said Howley, who grew up in Midlothian and earned a master’s degree in special education at the College of William & Mary.
With stories like that in mind, Howley and Mary Townley created The Next Move, a local nonprofit startup that’s trying to prepare people with disabilities for careers after high school graduation.
Founded in September, The Next Move creates guided internship and professional training programs for young people with developmental disabilities. It graduated the first class of its pilot program Tuesday at the Patrick Henry YMCA in Ashland.
“We believe all young people, regardless of a disability, have potential and deserve a bright future,” Howley said.
The statistics Next Move is trying to combat show there aren’t a lot of options for the developmentally disabled after high school graduation. Seventy percent of adults ages 18-25 with disabilities are unemployed in the Commonwealth, per data from the Virginia Department of Education.
The 22,000 who graduate each year often lack the soft skills and work experience that employers seek. The lack of employment can lead to depression, isolation and family burdens, Howley said.
The three interns from the group’s first class, who worked the past six weeks at the YMCA in Ashland as childcare attendants, membership coordinators and porters, were recognized at Tuesday’s ceremony by family and coworkers for their development.
“It has been amazing to see the growth in self-confidence in these individuals,” Jaime Gambaccini, the branch’s executive director, said at the ceremony.
Recruited by Townley and Howley from area high schools, the interns spent half of their days working at the YMCA and another three hours developing resumes and social skills like proper handshakes. The University of Richmond will host another four interns later this month for The Next Move’s second installment.
Howley and Townley were originally hired out of Chesterfield County Public Schools in 2013 to lead a similar internship program for people with disabilities at Health Diagnostic Laboratory – a once fast-growing downtown-based biotech firm. The company hired several of the interns, who had been part of the Henrico County Public Schools district, to fill what were previously temporary positions in its logistics department.
“They found that these individuals were really great workers,” Howley said, adding the new hires decreased error rates and turnover while improving morale within the department.
The program came to a halt, though, after the Justice Department began investigating HDL for an alleged kickback scheme and the company fell into bankruptcy in 2015.
Instead of returning to an area school system, Howley and Townley decided to relaunch and reconfigure the internship program so it could be incorporated by multiple Richmond businesses. They launched The Next Move as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in September.
To fundraise, Townley and Howley work with private donors and area businesses to cover their program’s operating costs, outreach and general liability insurance. Howley said the Virginia Department of Education has also expressed interest in working with The Next Move.
“The biggest thing for us to grow and have multiple programs running at the same time is to expand our fundraising,” Howley said. “We try to keep the experience free or at a minimal cost to our students, and typically don’t look for host businesses to pay for the program.”
The Next Move continues to solicit corporate and private donors. It is also planning a fundraiser event later this summer to honor Wells Fargo, the Greater Richmond YMCA and other area businesses for their hiring and training practices for people with disabilities. The event, to be held at The Frontier Project in Scott’s Addition on Aug. 31, will be emceed by WTVR meteorologist Nikki-Dee Ray.