Feature Story

February 29, 2024

The Journey to Employment for People with Disabilities: Kelly McCown

Kelly McCown, an ACE-IT graduate, utilized VCU Rehabilitation Research and Training Center’s Business Connections program to assist her in finding her current customer service role at a clothing store in the Richmond, Va., area. (Photo by Lucian Friel)

RICHMOND, Va.- For many teenagers, independence starts with a job and money in their pockets. Kelly McCown is no exception to this. At 14 years old, Kelly began working around her neighborhood, watering plants, taking care of pets, and doing house chores for neighbors. Lucy McCown, Kelly’s mother, said she’s noticed Kelly’s confidence grow throughout her job experiences.

“Kelly's had a number of jobs since she was in high school,” Lucy explained. “But 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, Kelly graduated from ACE-IT in College, a program that began in 2010 through VCU Rehabilitation Research and Training Center (RRTC) and VCU School of Education. The program is a 20-plus credit certificate for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Students take VCU classes and participate in campus activities and work experiences that align with career goals and interests. Kelly’s work experiences and internships included working at VCU’s Child Care Center and Child Development Center and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA), which Lucy said was instrumental in Kelly’s growth as an employee.

            “One of the best internships she had was at the VMFA,” Lucy explained. “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 ACE-IT, Kelly was employed as a teacher’s assistant at a childcare center. Her tasks included delivering snacks and supplies to eight different classrooms and assisting teachers in the care of the children. Kelly held the position until mid-2021 when, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Kelly’s employer was unable to hire her back, something Lucy said was sad, but also opened a new opportunity for Kelly.

Kelly and Noah Whibley, an employment specialist with VCU RRTC, share a funny story in the VCU Commons. Whibley worked with Kelly to assist her in finding employment in the Richmond area. (Photo by Lucian Friel)

Kelly joined VCU RRTC Business Connections to assist her in finding another job that also aligned with her interests in helping people. Business Connections, primarily funded by the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS) and the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired, is a supported employment service provider for people with disabilities in metro Richmond and surrounding areas. The program's employment specialists assist in finding competitive, integrated employment in the community and providing ongoing support to clients who obtain employment. 

Rachael Rounds, the program manager of VCU RRTC’s Business Connections, discussed Kelly’s employment transition from childcare to customer service.

“Another childcare facility's director contacted me about diversifying her hiring procedures, and Kelly was quickly hired as a teacher’s assistant,” Rounds explained. “After the director retired, Kelly's role changed and the new requirements didn't match her skill set. The employment specialist used Kelly's outstanding social skills to land her a customer service role.”

In the summer of 2023, Kelly began her employment in customer service at a national clothing store in the Richmond area, something Kelly says she enjoys.

            “I like my coworkers and my manager,” Kelly explained. “I like helping people and asking people how their day is, and I like getting a paycheck.” 

            Noah Whibley, an employment specialist with VCU RRTC, described how they connected Kelly with her current employer.

            “Kelly's super social; She's very outgoing,” Whibley said. “She loves working with people, and I already had a connection [to the company] through another client of mine, and they've just been a super accommodating, flexible employer for Kelly.”

            Whibley discussed the process of assisting Kelly in gaining employment and some of the support used to help train Kelly in her work duties.

            “I noticed, as I was at this job site that they were short-staffed, and they had an open customer service position, and I just knew that Kelly would succeed in that role based on her skill set,” Whibley explained. “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 the tasks Kelly is responsible for is checking the fitting rooms.  She has a stoplight timer. It will be green when it’s time to go through the fitting room and check for hangers and clothes that people left and to see how many people are in there currently. She has a written schedule, a binder and a chart that helps with the sizes and tags and that was really helpful.” 

Kelly’s expanded tasks include engaging with customers and addressing their questions. She ensures that patrons adhere to the permissible limit of clothing items, which is part of a loss prevention protocol. Once customers are finished trying on clothing, she collects the unwanted items, arranges them, and restores them to the sales area.

Kelly and Lucy McCown stop by VCU RRTC to share Kelly’s journey to employment from ACE-IT in College to Business Connections. (Photo by Lucian Friel)

            As Kelly continues to excel in her work position and duties, Lucy has some advice for parents and families of individuals with disabilities when it comes to the employment of their loved ones.

            “Start with chores at home, then gravitate towards the neighborhood, then look for volunteer opportunities,” Lucy explained. “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 a big shout out to the ACE-IT program for the structure. I think it teaches an individual how to manage [their time]. Those internships are really important in teaching job skills in addition to what ACE-IT teaches in the classroom.”

            Kelly added advice to people with disabilities who want to work.

            “Ask for help when you need it,” she said.

For more information on VCU RRTC Business Connections, visit [vcurrtc.org/businessconnections], and for more information on ACE-IT in College, visit [aceitincollege.org].