For Geoff Lawson, vice president and general manager of the Washington, D.C. area’s The National Conference Center, the value of participating in the Project SEARCH High School Transition Program, a 10-month school-to-work program aiding young people with autism and Down syndrome, was immediately apparent.
“About a year ago we were contacted by the Loudoun County [Va.] Public School District, which introduced us to Project SEARCH,” Lawson remembered. “They said that the kids they worked with had autism and Down syndrome, and as soon as they said this I knew we were going to do this thing, because it’s the right thing for the kids. They said they would bring one person and I said ‘You’re not going to bring one, you’re going to bring 10—we’re going to go big.’”
Fast-forward nearly a year later and nine of the original 10 (one had to drop out because it was not a good fit for her situation) successfully completed the program and were rewarded with a graduation ceremony June 6 at The National, which is actually hiring three graduates as staff members.
Supervised by Didlake, a not-for-profit organization providing opportunities for people with disabilities in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, Project SEARCH is a national effort that offers workplace immersion that combines classroom instruction, career exploration and job-skills training. Other partners in the effort include Loudoun County Public Schools and the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services.
Project SEARCH workers learn their trade in a variety of ways at the sprawling 67-acre, 917-room conference center, including in culinary, audiovisual, work on the grounds, housekeeping and conference service setups.
Lawson knew The National would be perfect for the effort, as the facility—built in 1974 as a training center for Xerox—offered a multitude of settings that could provide a variety of work opportunities. In fact, The National is the first conference and event center in Virginia to host Project SEARCH, which typically uses the large, complex environments offered by hospitals to provide enough tasks and work settings for the students.
Located in Northern Virginia 12 miles from Dulles International Airport and 35 miles from Washington, D.C., The National has been recognized for the effort by winning an “Action Award” by area DMO Visit Loudoun, given to a tourism industry individual or organization that made a contribution to aid and assist others. For Lawson, the real reward is the joy in giving back.
“Each child rose to the each occasion perfectly—it was so cool,” Lawson said. “It’s passion. It’s from the heart. It will be sad on graduation day, as some will go on, but some will stay on as employees.”