June 6, 2024

VCU Alum with Autism Gains Employment, Builds Confidence to Be a Voice for the Disability Community

Zack Day, a 2021 VCU graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Political Science, utilized VCU-RRTC Business Connections to connect them with their employment at BeneCounsel, a local Richmond law firm that specializes in disability law and advocacy. (Photo by Lucian Friel)

RICHMOND, Va.- When Zack Day graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University’s political science program in 2021, they knew they wanted to start a career in disability law to help individuals with disabilities.

“Ultimately, I’m someone who is trying to help people and help society,” Day explained. “I'm looking to see what I can do to improve the average person’s life, and I think that law is the skill to do that with and one that I’m well-suited to do.”

Day, a 2016 Varina High School graduate, said graduating college during the COVID-19 Pandemic made finding employment in their desired field difficult. That’s when they turned to the Virginia Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services, where they were connected with an employment specialist at VCU Rehabilitation Research and Training Center to assist in their job search.

“They told me, ‘You are very clearly well educated and very well-intended and just really struggling to find a job,’ and they thought a job coach would be helpful for that: to help me with the social and understanding side of things like what job hunting looks like and what I need to be focused on,” Day explained. “Noah was a great resource for finding local connected opportunities. They helped me with interviewing and being a social-emotional support.”

Noah Whibley, an employment specialist with VCU-RRTC’s Business Connections program, described the uniqueness of assisting Zack in finding employment.

“The job development process with Zack was kind of an anomaly, it took only about a month from the time I met them to the time they received the job offer,” Whibley said. “When I met Zack, they were working at a grocery store. They were not a fan of that job. It wasn't suited to their skills. They had experience in the legal sector, they knew they wanted to work with a marginalized community, and the opportunity came up at BeneCounsel, and it was the perfect job for them.”

Zack Day looks over documents with attorney Matt Bellinger, the owner of BeneCounsel where Day is employed as a legal assistant. Day is working toward their paralegal certification and law school to work with individuals with disabilities and their families. (Photo by Lucian Friel)

BeneCounsel, a law firm in Richmond, specializes in disability benefits and legal services such as guardianships and powers of attorney. Attorney Matt Bellinger, the owner of the firm, began the process of searching for legal assistants in 2022 and decided that hiring individuals with disabilities to fill those positions was what he wanted to do. Bellinger explained the impact Zack has on the firm.

“Zack is very empathic, very attuned to how people are feeling and they bring their own perspective to things,” Bellinger said. “Zack is doing everything that a paralegal does to the point where we are looking into Zack getting their paralegal certification and going to law school. They're doing the work.”

Day explained that while they’re comfortable in their work and abilities now, it didn’t start out that way, but Whibley was there to provide the support they needed.

“I’m someone that has some issues lacking confidence and belief in my own abilities,” Day explained. “It was good to have someone that was kind of like a cheerleader for me, the constant reassurance that I got this, I’m learning this, and someone I know that I can turn to.”

Whibley said that social-emotional support was a key support in Zack’s success and professional growth.

“Zack knew exactly what needed to be done but didn't always have the confidence to give things a shot,” Whibley said. “It was a lot of providing positive affirmations, verbal and written. They have a whole drawer full of positive affirmations and if they feel like they’re lacking in confidence, they can pull one from the drawer that they feel resonates with them that day. I’ve seen such a growth in confidence. They used to be shy about talking to people and now they make phone calls to clients and courts. They’ve really blossomed into this role.”

Bellinger recalls an example of Zack’s interpersonal confidence growth, “I had a meeting and I was running late, but I knew I was going to be, so I had Zack prepare for it and Zack ran the meeting. I think it really empowered Zack to speak up more in the meeting, not just take notes, and they came up with really great ideas.”

Day credited Bellinger with fostering an environment where they can build confidence and reach their full potential.

Zack Day works on legal documents at BeneCounsel, a local Richmond law firm that specializes in disability law and advocacy. Day overcame anxiety and low confidence to thrive as a legal assistant with the assistance of their employment specialist from VCU-RRTC Business Connections. (Photo by Lucian Friel)

“This is a really nurturing and supportive environment,” Day said. “Matt has been incredible in how much support and help he’s willing to give, good career support, but we also get to do a lot of good work. We’re helping people. I see families who have been struggling for so long to figure how to take care of their child with a disability; we make that more simple. I see the good work we’re doing to help people. It feels good.”

As Day continues to build their confidence and works toward their paralegal certification and law school, they offered advice to anyone working through anxiety.

“Try to figure out how to manage the anxiety and worries that can come with starting a new job,” they said. “That is always going to be a big thing. It’s a big change, it’s natural. Trying to deal with that can be hard, but definitely figure out how you can manage that. A job coach is a really good resource to help figure out tricks and tips as well as getting that confidence.”

For more information on VCU-RRTC Business Connections, visit: vcurrtc.org/businessconnections