HENRICO, VA (WWBT) - A big surprise for a special group of local high school graduates. An announcement was made at the end of the their ceremony, Friday afternoon, that brought tears to the eyes of many in attendance.
It's all part of a something called Project Search -- a program to help connect autistic high school students with perspective employers.
One by one, the autistic high school seniors took center stage. Under Project Search, eight students traded their senior year in a Henrico County High School to participate in a 9 month internship at St. Mary's Hospital. The goal is to teach them specific skills so they can get a job after graduation.
Pharoah Jackson took part in the program. He and his grandmother, Mattie Jackson, couldn't be happier.
"Social skills, interactive skills -- these things he didn't have before. They've worked and pulled it out of him. This is wonderful," said Jackson.
Organizers of the project say it's extremely difficult for students like Pharoah and Kalyn Hudson to find a job after graduating from school.
"The unemployment rate is 86% for individuals with autism coming out of school," said VCU's Paul Wehman.
But for this group of graduates that won't be a problem. They got an unexpected surprise from Bon Secours Hospital at the end of their ceremony.
"We'd like to extend an offer to you for official employment effective July 5th," said a spokesperson with the hospital.
The crowd and graduates jumped and cheered at the news.
It's an announcement Pharoah's grandmother calls a lifesaver.
"A miracle happened. He has a job," she said.
The opportunity will likely change the graduates and their families lives forever.
Project Search is a national program. Locally, the program is in its second year. The next group of student participants will begin in September.
Locally, Project Search is a partnership among several organizations including VCU, Henrico County Public Schools, Virginia Department of Rehabilitative Services and Bon Secours.