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LHS senior graduates from Project SEARCH

A Lakeland High School senior was among the “fabulous five” recognized on Friday for completing a rigorous program that prepared them for future success in the workforce despite their obstacles.

Matthew Mahoney, 20, and four other Hampton Roads high school seniors dressed sharply for their graduation from the Project SEARCH program at Bon Secours Maryview Medical Center in Portsmouth. More than 80 friends, family and staff gathered for the ceremony to congratulate Mahoney, Virginia Beach resident Jared Teti and Jesse Felton, Martin Horne and Phillip Winnegan of Portsmouth.

Project SEARCH is a national employment training program for youth with developmental disabilities. Instead of completing their senior years at their respective high schools, the five graduating seniors met in a classroom at Maryview and worked three unpaid internships for hands-on experiences.

They earned their “fabulous five” nickname for their hard work and overwhelming positivity.

“These fine young men have overcome many obstacles as they have moved along their pathways of success each school year to reach this special day,” said David Sadler, executive director for Southeastern Cooperative Educational Programs, a system that provides education and other services to special needs students in Hampton Roads.

All of them were SECEP students and were guided at Maryview by teachers that have been by their side throughout high school. Other partners were Didlake Inc., who provided onsite job coaching and employment services, and the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services.

“SECEP’s practice is to bring together the necessary resources to form a team that gives students the opportunity to experience success in the classroom, in community based instructional opportunities and in internships,” Sadler said.

Mahoney, who has autism, used Hampton Roads Transit’s Paratransit service to get to Bon Secours Maryview every workday to study and complete internships in the materials management, acute rehabilitation and environmental services departments. His video resume during the ceremony showed him delivering supplies, cleaning rooms and handling other responsibilities.

“I really enjoyed having Matthew do his internship with us,” said Jesse Vallejos, Mahoney’s supervisor in materials management. “He had a great personality and did a great job.”

The program doesn’t just teach job skills and academics. Students also learn how to socialize outside of their comfort zones, and Mahoney thrived in this. Video showed him tapping his feet as he restocked shelves and giving cheery smiles as he cleaned rooms and vacuumed floors.

“He’s super friendly and engages well with all the patients and staff,” said Joyce Freeman, his supervisor in environmental services.

Mahoney is soft-spoken but was quick to say that his favorite part of the program was spending time with his “BFF” Roshawn Boney, a teacher assistant for SECEP.

“Matthew is his own individual,” Boney said. “You can’t not like Matthew.”

The program also advocates for students to balance work with relaxation, and for Mahoney that’s spending time with his family.

“He always has a positive attitude,” said his father, Mike Mahoney. “He always has a smile and is always happy to go to work.”

Since 2013, including the graduating class on Friday, 29 students have successfully completed the SEARCH program at Bon Secours Maryview, and 20 are employed in local businesses throughout Hampton Roads. Eight of those graduates are actively contributing at Maryview.

“I’m glad to say that each of our graduates has been absent three days or less this school year, which is a clear indication of their commitment to being in the Project SEARCH classroom,” Sadler said. “They must be committed to being in this environment in order to prepare themselves for postsecondary employment opportunities. It’s important that our students learn to advocate for themselves, not only in the classroom but in the workplace as well.”

For the past few weeks, Mahoney has been doing just that in his new job at St. Mary’s Home for Disabled Children in Norfolk. His mother, Maureen Mahoney, stressed how hard her son has worked to get to this point.

“Having a child with a disability, seeing him graduate and then seeing him go on to a position in the community — to have a job and be a member of a society — has been one of our dreams that we’ve always had for him,” she said. “To see it come to fruition is just remarkable.”