A photo of a woman standing next to giant yellow letters that spell out \"V C U\"
Kelly McCown, an ACE-IT graduate, worked with VCU Rehabilitation Research and Training Center’s Business Connections program to find her customer service position at a local clothing store. (Photo by Lucian Friel)

Path to employment was rewarding work for VCU program graduate with a disability

Kelly McCown was part of the ACE-IT in College initiative through the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center and the School of Education.

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For many teenagers, independence starts with a job and money in their pockets. At 14, Kelly McCown began working around her neighborhood – watering plants, caring for pets and doing household chores for neighbors.

“Kelly’s had a number of jobs since she was in high school,” said her mother, Lucy. “With each job, she’s gained a new set of skills. I’ve seen greater self-assurance, and she seems to have a nice command of the job once she gets it, which is usually fairly quickly. What I really liked seeing is the people around her understanding that she is enthusiastic, generally pleasant – and that she can do the job, enjoys doing the job and doing it well.”

In 2018, McCown graduated from ACE-IT in College, a program that began in 2010 through Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rehabilitation Research and Training Center and the School of Education. The program is a 20-plus-credit certificate for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

ACE-IT students take VCU classes and participate in campus activities and work opportunities that align with career goals and interests. McCown’s experiences and internships included working at VCU’s Child Development Center and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

“One of the best internships she had was at the VMFA,” Lucy said. “She started with small tasks, but by the end of the semester, she could walk a group, with assistance, through an art exhibit and explain it. It showed the growth over the course of the semester. It was kind of my model of what an internship should be, helping someone start small and end big.”

After graduating from ACE-IT, McCown was employed as a teacher’s assistant at a child care center until mid-2021, when the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted that role. But then she joined the VCU RRTC’s Business Connections program.

Business Connections, primarily funded by the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services and the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired, is a supported employment service provider for people with disabilities in Richmond and surrounding areas. Employment specialists assist clients in finding competitive, integrated employment in the community and provide ongoing support – and for McCown, it meant a transition from child care to customer service.

Rachael Rounds, the program manager of Business Connections, said McCown had a second stint as a teacher’s assistant at a different child care center, but when that role was redefined, “the employment specialist used Kelly’s outstanding social skills to land her a customer service role.” In summer 2023, McCown began working at a national clothing store in the Richmond area.

“I like my co-workers and my manager,” McCown said. “I like helping people and asking people how their day is – and I like getting a paycheck.”

A photo of two women sitting at a table and smiling.
Kelly McCown and Noah Whibley, an employment specialist with VCU RRTC, share a funny story in the VCU Commons. Whibley helped McCown find employment in the Richmond area. (Photo by Lucian Friel)

Noah Whibley, a supported employment specialist with Business Connections, praised McCown for being “super social; she’s very outgoing. She loves working with people.” Whibley, who had a connection to the retailer through another client, praised the retailer, too.

“They’ve just been a super accommodating, flexible employer for Kelly,” Whibley said. “The employer allowed me to be there to support her during the interview, and we worked together to walk through the onboarding and training process for Kelly.”

One of McCown’s basic responsibilities is checking the fitting rooms. A stoplight timer will cue her to inspect the spaces for occupancy, as well to recover clothing and hangers. She has a written schedule, a binder and a chart that help her account for various sizes and tags.

But McCown’s expanded tasks include engaging with customers and fielding their questions. She ensures that patrons adhere to clothing limits for the fitting rooms, and as she collects unwanted items, she arranges them and restores them to the sales area.

As McCown continues to excel, Lucy applauded how the ACE-IT program helped her daughter through its structure, which helps teach time-management skills, and its encouragement of internships that build job skills outside the classroom.

Lucy also has advice for families seeking employment for a loved one with disabilities.

“Start with chores at home, then gravitate toward the neighborhood, then look for volunteer opportunities,” she said. “It’s another way to build those job skills, whether it’s at a church or around the community. I think that’s a good way to see what your child likes or doesn’t like. Where are their strengths? Do they like working with people? Would they rather sit in the back room and put library books away? You know, whatever it is.”

And McCown, thinking of others who also have disabilities, added some advice of her own: “Ask for help when you need it.”