American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Special Issue: The World of Work      LAYING THE GROUNDWORK

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Project RISE: Resilience, Independence, Self-Advocacy, and Employment

by Jacki Bruce

Project RISE Coordinator Joe Orozco, Curriculum Coordinator Julia Ford, and mentor Jacki Bruce stand with student Aubree Jackson. Aubree holds an award certificate. From the Editor: Preparing to enter the job market is a complicated process. Blind and low-vision students need a range of skills, and they have to approach the process with positive attitudes and determination to succeed. In this article, Project RISE Outreach Coordinator Jackie Bruce describes the program and invites mentors and students to share their thoughts and experiences.

Project RISE developed as a collaboration between the NFB of Virginia and the Virginia Department for the Blind and Visually Impaired (DBVI). Blind and low-vision students are eligible to take part if they are between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one and have an open case with DBVI. We meet monthly, either in person or over Zoom, and talk about ways students can prepare for a job search. RISE is an acronym for resilience, independence, self-advocacy, and employment. We believe that resilience, independence, and self-advocacy are the keys our students need in order to find jobs.

Our meetings cover a wide range of topics and include a variety of activities. We focus on these areas:

Project RISE is not all work! We include fun activities throughout the program, and plenty of camaraderie develops among the students. We encourage our students to use their imaginations and come up with original ideas. In one exercise, called Shark Tank, student teams introduce products or services to the rest of the group. One team came up with a service they called Bark Talk that would enable humans to converse with dogs. A Bark Talk program would interpret human speech into barks and barks into speech. It was wonderfully imaginative, and everybody wanted to buy one!

Joe Orozco is our program coordinator, and our curriculum coordinator is Julia Ford. They arrange for students to attend career fairs and shadow employees in the workplace. They also set up internships so some students can gain hands-on work experience.

Persuading employers to accept blind interns can pose a real challenge. Joe and Julia spend a lot of time laying the groundwork, and they have set up some internships for students that led to paying jobs. One RISE student worked at an ice cream shop, and another one worked for a caterer.

We started Project RISE with only six students. We've done a lot of outreach through schools, parent organizations, rehabilitation programs, and word of mouth. This year thirty students are taking part. It's been very exciting to watch the program grow year by year.

All of our mentors are blind people who can serve as role models, drawing upon their own experience to answer questions and help the students solve problems. Each mentor is paired with two or three students, and they usually form strong and meaningful bonds. Mentor Jenny Blinsmon says, "This is my first year being a mentor with Project RISE. I remember feeling like I was in way over my head when I first started. But my student, Kim, and I bonded fairly quickly, especially over our interests in the military and animals. This is her third year with Project RISE, and she has made great strides. She has stood up for herself, both with me and with a college instructor who wasn't giving her an accommodation she needs. She has completed an informational interview on her own. I believe she will use what she's learned in Project RISE, and that she has great potential to be successful. It has been my honor and joy not only to walk through this year with her, but also to grow and learn myself as well."

"I have been a project RISE mentor since its inception, and one of the first students I had was Danielle," another mentor recalls. "Danielle came to me as a very shy and timid fifteen-year-old. At first she was very hesitant and shy. Little by little, with some prodding and prompting, she started to come into her own. Soon Danielle was feeling a little bit more comfortable in our monthly sessions, and she became more responsive with our texts and phone call communications. 

"I remember Danielle got her first job when she turned sixteen. She worked at Dunkin' Donuts, and I went to visit her there. I gave her a hard time on how to prepare my coffee, since I'm very picky, but I told her that was one of the many lessons she would learn in serving the public. Danielle has had many more jobs after her first one, and I have written up many references for her so that she can dabble in a little bit of everything. Danielle demonstrates excellent work ethic. Recently she completed extensive training at the center in Staunton, Virginia, to become an administrative assistant."

Mentor Evelyn Valdez says, "I met Rodger in a summer program in 2021. Rodger is an English language learner, and he is deaf-blind. I recommended to his family that he become a part of Project RISE, where he could continue to become friends with other blind high school students and get the opportunity to meet blind adults. Well, he dove right in! First he was challenged through a confidence-building activity using a chainsaw to cut a chunk of wood at the National Center for the Blind headquarters in Baltimore. He has participated in legislative seminars in Richmond and attended the NFB of Virginia Convention. I have seen him become much more assertive in learning to advocate for himself as he adjusts to vision loss. He likes to network with some of my friends who are doing real estate, because he wants to be his own boss, an entrepreneur. I am so excited that Rodger is going to his first ever NFB National Convention in Houston in July."

Project RISE mentors benefit from the program almost as much as the students do.  "My time as a mentor in the Project RISE program has helped me step out of my comfort zone and be more of a leader," reflects Michael Kitchens. "Of course, there is always more room for growth." Mentor Sean McMahon says, "Being a mentor for project RISE gives me the opportunity to teach our students some of life's lessons I've learned because I've been where they are now. However, the opportunity to pass along knowledge is most rewarding because of what I learn from them."

"I found out about Project RISE from my rehab counselor," says Jahmil, one of this year's students. "Through the project I started attending NFB meetings, and I've really learned a lot. I've met a lot of people who can answer my questions about working as a blind person and about traveling when you're a cane user.
I have a job coach now, and I'm looking for a summer job. I plan to go to college, and it's encouraging to talk to students who are a few years ahead of me on that journey."

Please visit to learn more about our program. If you have any questions, you can reach us at [email protected] or call Joe Orozco, Program Coordinator, at 703-495-3273.

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