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Program helps workers with Autism thrive on the job

RICHMOND, Va. -- Every time Trey Smith sits down in his cubicle at work, five words greet him.

"I CAN AND I WILL."

A nod to the determination that has guided the 20-year old since he was little. That has been his mantra throughout life.

His parents John and Altrice Smith said the words best describe their son.

Despite a diagnosis of Autism at age two, Trey flourished with the help of family, friends and community support.

After he graduated from Hermitage High School in 2017, he sailed through a job readiness program through VCU‘s Project Search. He graduated from the VCU program last June.

Five months later, Trey landed his first full-time job with Dominion Energy in the Human Resources department.

Trey said he loved coming to work every day and it was very important for him to arrive on time.

"We held him to high standards. In our family we believe in hard work. We knew Trey was capable of more than what some other people may have seen. We are grateful he’s able to show what he’s capable of here," mom Altrice Smith said.

As Trey proudly showed us his work space at Dominion Energy’s Cary Street building, he talked about some of the tasks that he handles on a daily basis.

“Like, I did some scanning, sorting, and matching. These are the files right here and the folders. I put a sticky notes on the work I don’t finish,” Trey explained.

Supervisor Samantha Lester said Trey has a very critical job in their department.

She said he was working on a project now to help them transition paper records into a digital database.

“He has done a wonderful job. One thing that Trey brings to the job is, he has a keen eye for when things don’t look right. He points it out to us. He’s very particular about his work. Which makes us sure of his accuracy,” Lester said.

Lester went on to compliment Trey about his positive attitude, saying coworkers really enjoy having him on the team.

Job coach Christi Monger works for VCU’s Rehab, Research and Training Center.

She has worked with Trey through Project Search and is on the job daily with him.

Monger said it was amazing to see his self confidence grow as well as his independence.

“He has built natural supports. He doesn’t always come to me. Now, if he has questions, he goes to co-workers and they jump in and help immediately. It’s a wonderful, supportive environment,” Monger added.

Rachael Rounds who also works for the VCU Rehab, Research and Training Center is instrumental in connecting businesses with the Project Search program.

She said the partnership they forged with Dominion Energy has been great.

Trey is one of the first two employees hired at Dominion Energy through this program.

The hope is more businesses will get involved, providing more employment opportunities for individuals living with Autism.

Rounds said she wanted families with loved ones on the Autism spectrum to know that there are resources out there to help.

“At VCU we believe anyone who wants to work can work. We focus on what the person can do. We match them with the right fit. We don’t want to put a round peg in a square hole. It’s our job to connect them with a job that fits their abilities. If they want to work, we can find them a job,” Rounds explained.

Smith said she was exceptionally grateful for the business partnerships that are being created, so other individuals like her son can also have an opportunity to let their lights shine.

“To have companies like Dominion and organizations like Project Search to take this up and do what’s right with these young people is phenomenal. They have talents and gifts and they want to be a part of society. They want to contribute.”

Smith said she also hoped her son’s story would inspire others.

Her message to other moms and families who have loved ones on the Autism spectrum?

“Just pray. Not just for your child, but pray for their teachers too. You just continue to advocate for them. And know that there is support out here for them," she said.

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