Episode 120 VR Workforce Studio
Celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness with Kaleb Jeffries and his story of drones, weather forecasting and the workforce
VR Workforce Studio Singers: Singing VR Workforce Studio.
Kaleb Jeffries: I’m like, “Holy cow.” It’s so exciting. But being right near Wallop, you get to see every rocket that’s going off. It’s the most amazing thing ever.
Jake Hart: Four, three, two, one. VR Workforce Studio, podcasting the sparks that ignite vocational rehabilitation through the inspiring stories of people with disabilities who have gone to work.
Flora Frazier: Working in a field that I understand.
Jake Hart: As well as the professionals who have helped them.
James Hall: A job and a career, you got to look at how life-changing this is.
Jake Hart: And the businesses who have filled their talent pipelines with workers that happen to have disabilities.
Debby Hopkins: To help expand registered apprenticeship.
Jake Hart: These are their stories.
Megan Healy: Because there’s such a great story to tell about people with disabilities.
Jake Hart: Now, here are the hosts of the VR Workforce Studio, Rick Sizemore and Betsy Civilette.
Rick Sizemore: Drone operators are beginning to emerge as a critical segment of our modern workforce. We’re fortunate today to welcome a young man, Kaleb Jeffries, to the podcast.
Kaleb Jeffries: Hi, everyone.
Betsy Civilette: Well, alongside his extraordinary interest in drones, he is a local legend on the eastern shore of Virginia and described as Chincoteague’s finest weather forecaster by well-known meteorologist Jim Cantore, which I’m totally jealous you got to meet him. I love him.
Kaleb Jeffries: I know, right?
Rick Sizemore: This is so ironic that we’re recording this podcast and you’re down there on the Eastern shore of Virginia engaged in monitoring the weather this morning, right, Kaleb? What’s going on?
Kaleb Jeffries: Yeah, so we are pretty busy here on the Eastern shore this morning. This storm developed last minute while I was at work yesterday. We’re under a tropical storm warning and a storm surge warning for about a four feet storm surge inundation, coastal flooding. Yeah.
Rick Sizemore: We thank you for taking some time out of your busy schedule, monitoring the weather and all the other things you do to talk with us. We also have on the podcast, Robin Sexauer, Kaleb’s vocational rehabilitation counselors. We delve into this.
Kaleb Jeffries: Good morning, Ms. Robin.
Robin Sexauer: Hi, Kaleb.
Rick Sizemore: So we’re delving into this story of how drone academies have emerged in a partnership with the robotics industry and workforce development to create opportunities for people like Kaleb. So welcome, Kaleb and Robin.
Robin Sexauer: Thank you.
Kaleb Jeffries: Yes, I’m very excited to be doing this this morning.
Betsy Civilette: Well, like we said, you are a superstar.
Kaleb Jeffries: Yes.
Betsy Civilette: You’re a high school graduate. You are into drones, and you’ve had some amazing experiences working with Sentinel Robotic Solutions as well as A and N Electric Cooperative. Right? Tell us what you’ve been up to with them.
Kaleb Jeffries: Okay, so my intern, when I first started my intern with Sentinel, I was brought on my very first mission, and let me just tell you just the way to describe it was the coolest thing ever. The fact we got to go down to Newport News, we went to the Port of Virginia at the Newport News Marine Terminal, and I got to see some pretty dang cool stuff. I did the forecasting for that morning, as it mattered a lot. We were launching an Aerostat balloon and we were going to be flying the drones, and we were doing this while they were working, and this was simulating real life scenarios, pretty much to say it.
Betsy Civilette: Well, that’s amazing because it’s got to be one of the biggest ports in the world, right? To monitor.
Kaleb Jeffries: Oh my gosh. While we were there, we watched this giant cargo ship and I’m like, holy cow.
Rick Sizemore: Oh, this is.
Kaleb Jeffries: Never seen anything like it. Well,
Betsy Civilette: That’s cool that you got to be a part of that and on your first internship.
Kaleb Jeffries: Yeah, I was excited.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah. Hey, Robin. You’re a veteran vocational rehabilitation counselor. You’ve been doing this a long time. You’re hard to track down. In fact, we caught you in the middle of this storm on the fly. Tell us how this partnership evolved with drones, workforce, education, drone academies, the robotics industry. How did all this come about?
Robin Sexauer: Okay. I have a lot of students. I serve five high schools on the eastern shore, two of them being on islands. So we have a very unique situation over here and are very limited with employment because of our rural area. So I had a lot of students that wanted to be gamers, and of course there’s no jobs on the eastern shore for gamers. So I went to a job fair at the community college one day, and Jason Taylor happened to be there having a booth promoting their class that they had at the college for adults.
Rick Sizemore: Now, who’s Jason?
Robin Sexauer: Jason Taylor. Yeah.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah. Who is he? What does he do?
Robin Sexauer: He works with Sentinel Robotic Solutions.
Rick Sizemore: Gotcha.
Robin Sexauer: And they teach a drone class for adults at the college. So I talked to him and I said, “Hey, I’ve got students with disabilities that I would like to get into employment, but they want to be gamers. Is there anything that we can do with drones? Because I know that they’ve done a lot with the wind tunnels and I thought maybe our students could be sending out drones to those wind tunnels as an employment opportunity.”
So Jason let me know that they had converted a PS4 Game controller into a drone operator, and from there the conversation took off and he said, I would love to meet with you. Next thing we knew, we were having a meeting with Sentinel Robotic Solutions and the community college, and we found out about the pre-ETS academies through DARS that allows us to provide the funding to have this program.
And the turnaround time was quick. We had what we initially called a drone academy started a month later, and we had high school students with disabilities from the Eastern Shore participate, and I think Kaleb was in one of the first classes that we did.
Kaleb Jeffries: Yeah.
Robin Sexauer: And it gave the students the opportunity to explore careers in aerospace and also learn about the college programs and be a college student for a week. And it was phenomenal.
Kaleb Jeffries: It was so awesome.
Betsy Civilette: Yeah. Unique workforce down there, of course, with Wallops Island, right? And NASA, and so what a great opportunity.
Kaleb Jeffries: Yeah, it’s so exciting. Being right near Wallops, being born and raised here on the Eastern Shore, you get to see every rocket that’s going off. It’s the most amazing thing ever.
Betsy Civilette: That is cool. Well, Kaleb, switching gears here. Tell us a little bit about your disabilities and how has Vocational Rehabilitation helped you get to where you are today?
Kaleb Jeffries: Okay. So when I’ve been diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome, which is both forms of autism, and Robin, I swear by it. Swear by it, my whole life has helped me the whole way through, and it’s been phenomenal.
Betsy Civilette: Well, she is an amazing professional, that’s for sure.
Kaleb Jeffries: Oh my gosh. So I love her to death.
Rick Sizemore: So what are some of the things she helped you do?
Kaleb Jeffries: I did the Wilson. She got me out there, and I loved the program. It was awesome. First time I went there, I did a wood shop class, if I remember correctly, and then when they did the voc. evals, I did electrical. I love to run wires. If you all saw my room right now, it’s filled with wires and then made a lot of new friends out there. I went there for the PERT program as well, a life skills kind of thing. It was just a wonderful program. I’d recommend it to a lot of people for sure.
Betsy Civilette: Great. Well, what do you ultimately want to do as a profession?
Kaleb Jeffries: Okay, so definitely the drone and definitely meteorology.
Betsy Civilette: Okay. And are you continuing your education with that? To pursue a degree?
Kaleb Jeffries: We had a little trouble getting the commercial pilot’s license. It’s a very difficult test. I’m not going to lie. So I’m going to retake the class with Jason starting this October. So.
Rick Sizemore: Robin, tell us about this partnership that’s on the forefront here with the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act to create a tailor-made program for Kaleb to carry him down the pathway to the workforce.
Robin Sexauer: Okay, this again, you said it right. This has been a very powerful partnership that has evolved out of this Drone Academy. Sentinel Robotics was so impressed with Kaleb’s enthusiasm and persistence and wanting to learn, and that’s when they had offered him the internship. So we just got approval yesterday. Kaleb might even not know this yet.
Rick Sizemore: Whoa, whoa.
Kaleb Jeffries: Oh. Oh.
Rick Sizemore: You heard it here.
Robin Sexauer: Participate. This is evolved from a drone class, aerospace class into an internship program, and now they have taken Kaleb on to be an engineering technician trainee. So we are in the process of finalizing that paperwork, which will start, and I spoke to Jason yesterday who is Kaleb’s teacher for all of these classes, and they’re going to get him to the point that he is going to pass that test. We have full faith in him.
Rick Sizemore: All right.
Robin Sexauer: This is one thing I really want to bring out about Kaleb that I have loved working with him. He has persevered so well through so many different things and obstacles to get to where he is. And I filled it, and I know that he made this comment in his article with ANEC that this was a big turning point for him, this drone program, because there’s not a lot of weatherman jobs out there or opportunities for training with that, and this opened a huge door for him. And the partnership with Sentinel Robotics Solutions and the college helped us with that and to find out in the DARS process and in Kaleb’s journey where he could go in what direction.
So he is on a wonderful path right now, and I feel like the training that he’s going to get with this WIOA funding and Sentinel Robotics, a hands-on program is phenomenal for him. So Kaleb’s going places, and he will be the next Jim Cantore. I feel like this is this wonderful thing. I’m honored to be with him on this journey. He’s been a great student to work with, and so this upcoming training program, we’ll hopefully be starting by October.
Rick Sizemore: Okay, so let’s nail this down. Exactly what is he going to be doing through WIOA and Sentinels? Give us that in a quick summary of what this new tailor-made program is.
Robin Sexauer: It’s going to be an on-the-job training program for an engineering technician.
Rick Sizemore: Congratulations.
Robin Sexauer: Yeah.
Betsy Civilette: Very exciting.
Rick Sizemore: How does that make you feel, Kaleb?
Kaleb Jeffries: I’m filled with joy. And yes, I’m going to become the next Jim Cantore. That starts today.
Betsy Civilette: It may very well, you can call your own thundersnow or whatever that person.
Kaleb Jeffries: Right. I’ve been up all night charging batteries, charging the camera batteries, ready to live stream to my Facebook page. That’s where I do most of my weather predictions for the local town and surrounding cities and counties. So all I have to do is hit the button on my camera and I’m ready.
Rick Sizemore: That is so exciting.
Betsy Civilette: What is your Facebook page so people can follow you?
Kaleb Jeffries: So my legal Facebook page or my Facebook page is my full legal name. It’s Joseph, Kaleb with a K, and then Jeffries.
Rick Sizemore: And that’s J-E-F-F-R-I-E-S. Robin, these drone academies. I don’t know how you’re going to accommodate the vast number of people when they hear about this and want to get into it. I don’t know how you’re going to serve everyone, but so far you’ve had several of these academies. What is the net impact of the academies and what have you learned in working with business and industry with folks like Sentinel?
Robin Sexauer: Well, we have run five of these academies and we’ve had 26 students participate. One of the big perks that we did was we invited the parents to attend the program with the students, and many parents did. As a result, this increased our parent participation to almost 100% because we had a big graduation that Friday. The class runs for five days, so the parents actually got to observe their child in a college setting, and that’s a big game changer for a student to go from high school to college and be like, wow, I’m new man on campus. And so that was a huge builder for our students. The students were given opportunities that they never thought that they would, for example, these internships. A couple other students also did internships and one was a teacher’s aide during the next several classes, and then shortly thereafter, the third program, Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital is now implementing a pilot program to use drones to deliver medications.
So we’re hoping that that’s going to create job opportunities for our students that are going through these drone academies. So it’s just spiraled with opportunities for DARS, and again, hats off to Sentinel Robotic Solutions, Eastern Shore Community College. And also the Eastern Shore Community Services Board chimed in and they’ve been providing transportation at no cost for us, so that has increased attendance. So this has just been a win-win-win situation for our consumers, the employers, and also gotten other employers involved such as ANEC and everybody. It’s amazing how many people are using drones in their businesses.
Rick Sizemore: It just sounds like such synergy with all the various parties involved. I’m looking at an email from Kara, Kaleb, your mom.
Kaleb Jeffries: Yes.
Rick Sizemore: And I talked with her yesterday. She’s so proud of you and the work that you’ve done and where your career’s headed. Robin, certainly she would love to have been on the podcast today, but she said to tell you how very much she appreciates the work of voc rehab and all that they’re doing. Kaleb, tell us just in your own words what this experience has meant to you in terms of getting ready to move into your dream job.
Kaleb Jeffries: Put it in short and simple terms. It’s felt wonderful. I’m proud of my own self to put it, to get this far, and I am starting my career pretty much. I would’ve loved to have my mom here with me, but they’re currently at school, which they’re actually undergoing an early dismissal today due to our storm coming in. So just hope all the staff and students are safe and making it home all right.
Rick Sizemore: Well, Kaleb Jeffries is a local celebrity on the eastern shore of Virginia, an aspiring meteorologist, a drone operator in training, and an all around celebrity. We thank you for being on the podcast today, Kaleb, and also Robin Sexauer, vocational rehabilitation counselor from the Eastern Shore.
Kaleb Jeffries: Yes, thank you for having me. It’s been awesome.
Betsy Civilette: Thank you, Kaleb.
Robin Sexauer: Well, thank you. It’s been an honor working with Kaleb and his mom. He’s phenomenal and he’s going places and I can’t wait to see where he lands. He’s phenomenal.
Rick Sizemore: Throughout the month of October, we are celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month. This year’s theme is Advancing Access and Equity. You can download free posters and videos from the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy at dol.gov.
Betsy Civilette: Thank you for tuning in to be our Workforce studio. As we mark international podcast day and kickoff National Disability Employment Awareness Month with our October episode, let’s take a moment to reflect on our journey. With 120 episodes under our belt, our podcast has been downloaded over 35,000 times. We’re honored to be recognized as the nation’s voice for VR by the Podcast Business Journal and have received the Excellence in Media Award from the National Rehabilitation Association. Additionally, we’ve had the privilege of producing music videos for RSA and C-S-A-V-R for the 50th anniversary of the Rehab Act. Through it all, we’ve learned that the stories of individuals with disabilities hold immense power, and our listeners are both enlightened and inspired by our guests. Thank you for being a part of our passion, our purpose, and our journey. Speaking of journeys, we now join Rick Sizemore from a live podcast in a van headed down I 95 with our commissioner and Khalil Watson.
Rick Sizemore: Well, we are in a state van on Interstate 95 headed south, returning from an amazing trip Khalil Watson who was on the White House Disability Forum this afternoon. And we just have to hear the story. Khalil, what was it like being at the White House Disability Forum and talking about vocational rehabilitation?
Khalil Watson: Yes, it was definitely a great experience. It was informational. I would say that for one, and just to have the opportunity to be able to be a part of this event and be onstage with other people with similar situations as myself was definitely remarkable.
Rick Sizemore: I’m sitting in the audience watching this amazing panel, and in the audience, there’s some pretty high-level government officials from the Office of Disability Employment, from the Department of Labor, from the Department of Education, and yet I saw at least, I’d say probably four or five people who had significant disabilities that use a wheelchair. As you’re up there looking out, did you have a reaction to seeing people who have evolved in leadership in the federal government that have disabilities as a person yourself who has a disability? Did you think about that?
Khalil Watson: Yeah, I did. I did. While being in the crowd and seeing the other people onstage and hearing and hearing their growth was inspiring for sure. And going back to your question, when I was onstage and looking out towards the crowd on some of the people’s facial expressions, it definitely was eye catching.
Rick Sizemore: Well, in the van, Kathy Hayfield, commissioner of the Virginia Department for Aging Rehabilitative Services.
Kathy Hayfield: Hello, Rick. It’s a great ride and we’re having such a good time as we sit in traffic leaving the White House Disability Forum.
Rick Sizemore: But as the commissioner, you were invited to be part of a White House event to celebrate 50th anniversary of voc rehab. Tell us what you said and what impact you think you had this afternoon as you participated in this really great event.
Kathy Hayfield: It was great. I really am honored to be representing the state VR programs. I mean, that’s pretty profound to be a commissioner of this agency, realizing that there are state programs all across the country just like ours, and we were really fortunate to be able to represent everyone.
Rick Sizemore: We had some exciting things going on in Virginia that we’re able to-
Kathy Hayfield: So in Virginia, we’ve really been striving to be innovative. We have programs where we’re helping individuals with disabilities get internships in careers of their choice. We have individuals trying to get jobs working for state government where we have folks working with our Department of Human Resource Management. We’re working really hard to assure that no longer do people work in sub minimum wage jobs. And the law changed in Virginia, so we’re helping all people find jobs in competitive integrated employment. All of these things together are just making such an amazing difference in Virginia.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah, well, it was cool to be there and to see our agency commissioner and this rockstar of a human being here in his wheelchair in the van was at the White House event talking about his life and how vocational rehabilitation is making an impact. The big question for you, Khalil, as you move now into Virginia Commonwealth University as a social work student, what will you take back to the classroom about this amazing day celebrating 50th anniversary of voc rehab – part of a White House event?
Khalil Watson: What I plan on taking back is just the whole experience itself. Just keeping the information that I’ve obtained from the event in mind and just using that as motivation to be the best that I can be going forward.
Rick Sizemore: That’s awesome. And Glenn Gallo from the Department of Education facilitated the panel you were on. You had lunch with Carol Dobak of Rehabilitation Services Administration, Steve Wooderson’s council of State Administrators for Vocational Rehabilitation. He’s the CEO of that organization. The room was filled with the country’s leaders and they wanted to hear from you, and I think they were incredibly moved by your story. If you want to hear Khalil’s story, it’s in the library, vrworkforcestudio.com. But give us the summary as we were just talking about, you’ve actually ridden your wheelchair to college one day when you missed the bus, and we were on that road this morning.
Khalil Watson: Yeah, so prior to COVID, I was using public transportation to get back and forth from school and to home and vice versa. And there would be times where I would miss the bus and ride my chair miles just to get to school because my family and I don’t have an accessible vehicle. I was left with two options to either go back home or miss class. I mean, I was left with two options, either go home and miss class or get to school the best way I could. So I did just that.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah, that’s amazing. And on the van ride up here, we’re talking about that and you said it really never dawned on me that that was anything heroic. It was just what I had to do in order to do what I had to do to get to school. So that’s truly amazing. Your mom and dad in attendance, did you ever believe or even dream when you started this year that you and your parents would be at the White House event to hear your vocational rehabilitation success story?
Khalil Watson: Not at all. Not at all. I wouldn’t have imagined that I would have this opportunity, but when I got the call from my counselor, Kendra, and she proposed the event to me, I couldn’t turn it down. I felt like it was definitely something that I would want to experience.
Rick Sizemore: Without a doubt. And we picked you up this morning. Your dad came out of the door and said, “It’s showtime!” He’s a cracker jack (an exceptionally good person or thing), isn’t he?
Khalil Watson: Yeah, he is for sure. He’s the more and more social person.
Rick Sizemore: Yeah. Well, tell us, we’re going to wrap things up here. What comments or what sentiments did your mom and dad share with you about how it made them feel to see you in this setting today? What did they say to you when you came off the stage?
Khalil Watson: They were just proud of me. They were just proud. Yeah.
Rick Sizemore: Well, that is our live podcast, rolling on 95 South in our DARS van with the commissioner and our rockstar, Khalil Watson.
Well, it’s time for the always entertaining and informative Heather Servais from our national clearinghouse. Heather, welcome to the podcast as we spin up International Podcast Day and National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
Heather Servais: Yeah. Happy International Podcasting Day, Rick. What a big day to celebrate for you.
Rick Sizemore: Absolutely. It’s been a great year. Last year we did receive NRAs, that’s the National Rehabilitation Association’s Excellence in Media Award. We did have just the great fortune of being out at the White House Disability Forum with George Dennehy and Khalil, so it’s been a great year. Thank you. What about National Disability Employment Awareness Month?
Heather Servais: Well, we at the Clearinghouse are celebrating National Disability Employment Awareness Month all throughout the month of October. If you follow along with N-C-R-T-M, you’ll be seeing lots of exciting success stories like Don Whitaker’s success story from the National Center for Self-Employment, Business Ownership, and Telecommuting. You’ll learn about Don’s self-employment journey as one of only eight wildlife art engravers that are currently practicing worldwide.
Rick Sizemore: Wow.
Heather Servais: And, yes, and you’ll hear how vocational rehabilitation services helped him become an internationally recognized wildlife photographer and artist.
Rick Sizemore: We got to check that one out.
Heather Servais: Yeah. You’ll also see tools like The Business Guide for Working with Individuals who are deafblind from Helen Keller Services. And this resource offers communication tips, accommodation suggestions, and other strategies to include individuals who are deafblind in the workplace, and to help businesses build inclusive workplaces. And then last, you’ll see events like the role of accessibility during National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which is hosted by Disability:IN. This panel discussion, explore strategies and best practices for advancing disability employment outcomes through actions that accelerate workplace accessibility. So we hope you’ll join us in commemorating National Disability Employment Awareness Month by following NCRTM on Twitter. There’ll be a direct link to our Twitter handle in the show notes, but it’s @ RSA underscore NCRTM, and you’ll get to stay up to date on the latest developments all throughout the month of October.
Rick Sizemore: Heather Servais directs RSA’s National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials and joins us each month for the Clearinghouse report. Links and resources from the NCRTM are included in the show notes at vrworkforcestudio.com. Thanks, Heather.
Heather Servais: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Rick.
Rick Sizemore: Well, thank you for getting involved in today’s show. If you or someone you know has a disability and wants to get into the workforce, vocational rehabilitation may just be the answer to kickstart your career. Visit us at vrworkforcestudio.com to find links and resources as well as our contact information. On behalf of my co-host, Betsy Civilette, I’m Rick Sizemore inviting you to join us as we podcast the Sparks That Ignite Vocational Rehabilitation.
Jake Hart: The VR Workforce Studio Podcast is owned and operated by Vocational Rehabilitation’s Partners in Podcasting. Audio content for the podcast is provided to VR Partners in Podcasting by the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services in exchange for promotional considerations.