May 31, 2024

Project SEARCH Success Story: Ehab Abdalla

Ehab poses for a photo after replenishing and sanitizing the patient kitchen at the Ambulatory Surgical Center. (Photo by Austin Miller)

For many school-aged individuals living with disabilities, the fear of the unknown grows as they approach the end of public education. The question of “now what?” begins to circulate amongst individuals and families. This was the case for Ehab Abdalla and his family, as he grew closer to exiting Henrico County Public Schools. Fortunately, Ehab’s family had experience in navigating the various concerns and challenges that many others do not. In 2021, Ehab, with the support of his family, applied to participate in a yearlong job skills training program called Project SEARCH. Ehab’s older brother had successfully participated in Project SEARCH previously and was able to find meaningful employment after with the support of a “job coach”. Ehab submitted his application for the 2021 – 2022 Project SEARCH program held at Bon Secours Mercy Health’s St. Mary’s Hospital, despite the fear and anxiety he felt within. 

“Project SEARCH would be a little different, and a change for me…Change is scary and I was worried because I wouldn’t know anyone [at Project SEARCH] and did not know what to expect.” 

To be considered for Project SEARCH, Ehab had to complete one day of work assessments and go before a panel interview at St. Mary’s. Coach Austin, an Employment Specialist with Virginia Commonwealth University’s – Rehabilitation Research and Training Center (RRTC) recalled Ehab’s interview experience, noting that he was “very shy, nervous and almost inaudible throughout the entire interview process”. It was clear that Project SEARCH would offer many benefits for Ehab, most importantly, providing him an opportunity to build upon his self-confidence and self-advocacy skills. 

After days of deliberation amongst the SEARCH team, Ehab was selected and invited to participate in the upcoming SEARCH year, if he chose to do so. His family was ecstatic and knew this would be a huge opportunity in Ehab’s life journey, even if he was still unsure about it. While the fears and anxiety of the unknown remained with Ehab as he started Project SEARCH, he quickly realized that he was enjoying himself and he began to look forward to each day at St. Mary’s. Throughout the program year, Ehab participated in three different internship experiences, where he was able to try out different kinds of work-related tasks, all while working alongside professionals employed within each respective department. 

Ehab utilizes his stocking checklist to ensure patient rooms in Endoscopy are fully stocked for nursing staff. (Photo by Austin Miller)

The SEARCH team supported Ehab each step of the way, providing instructional and emotional support whenever Ehab felt discouraged about his abilities. The team on site worked closely with Ehab to meet him where he was, to understand him as a person, and to motivate him to believe in himself. Each nine-week internship resulted in growth for Ehab, allowing him to gain more confidence in his own abilities, discover his voice, and provide explorative opportunities about employment interests. 

“When I finished Project SEARCH, I felt good inside because I was successful. I not only grew as a professional but as a person, because I could advocate for myself and felt confident.”

In June 2022, Ehab’s journey continued forward as he successfully finished Project SEARCH. With much excitement and achievement, that lingering question of “now what?” began to creep back up. Completing Project SEARCH marked a milestone and another change for Ehab, where he would be exiting the public school system for good and taking the leap into young adulthood. The trust and confidence built between the SEARCH team and Ehab’s family was solidified though. With support from the Virginia Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS) and VCU – RRTC, Ehab would continue to receive adult VR services and work with his VCU job coaches who supported him throughout his time at Project SEARCH. 

Ehab’s job coaches continued to meet with Ehab out in his community, exploring potential areas of employment interests and provided guidance for opportunities that Ehab desired. The knowledge and experience gained during Project SEARCH proved to be invaluable for Ehab and his support team. While various opportunities came up, it was critical for Ehab and his family that he find employment that was not only meaningful, but employment that offered a sense of safety and long-term security. 

“What really impressed me about Ehab throughout the “Job Development” phase of Supported Employment, was his desire to stay busy and help his family. Instead of sitting at home each day, Ehab made the decision to wake up early and drive 2+ hours to his father’s deli store, even if it meant that he would not be home until close to midnight. Not only did Ehab help to support his family’s business, he continued to build on the foundational skills gained through Project SEARCH, and became a real local that people looked forward to seeing each day.” – Coach Austin 

In 2023, a unique partnership between VCU-RRTC and VCU-Health System began to form unexpectedly. Coach Austin began to work closely with Marianne Williams (Senior Director of Talent Acquisition), initially meeting monthly to discuss the mutual benefits and the positive impact working together could offer. While unclear at the start of 2023, Marianne and Austin both recognized the many employment opportunities that could be fulfilled across the VCU-Health System and the need for competent and skilled laborers. After months of meeting virtually, touring facilities and departments, and garnering support from leadership amongst VCU-Health System, a perfect opportunity arose within the Ambulatory Surgical Center (ASC) located at the Short Pump Pavilion. Coach Austin immediately knew this employment opportunity would not only be of interest to Ehab, but it would also check all of Ehab’s desired work preferences. 

Ehab sanitizes a patient bed before “dressing” it in preparation for the next patient. (Photo by Austin Miller)

With Marianne’s support and guidance, Ehab was offered the opportunity to tour the ASC to get a sense of the work environment, meet many staff members, and speak directly with the department leaders. Ehab was calm, professional, and confident throughout the entire engagement and really impressed the staff within the department. It was clear-cut that the Perioperative Aide position was a perfect match for Ehab and for VCU-Health System. Coach Austin supported Ehab throughout the entire hiring process, assisting with the application submission, onboarding prerequisites, and providing direct support as Ehab mustered the confidence to start his new job. 

Since his official start date, Ehab has become a clear example and beacon for everyone, that with proper support, training, and motivation, anything is possible in the world of employment for individuals with disabilities. With patience, persistence, and encouragement, Ehab has risen to the daily challenges and has faced the great question of “Now what?”. With the support of everyone around him, Ehab has demonstrated his competence and ability to work amongst those within the ASC, achieving Employee of the Month recognition after several months of employment. The courage and confidence that Ehab has found within himself will only fortify the excellence and success he emanates as he continues on life’s journey.

Ehab’s Words of Encouragement To All Those Scared or Nervous About Working:

“You are safe, believe in yourself, be confident in yourself; don’t be afraid to use your voice.”