Thirty years ago, eight people with developmental disabilities gathered in the Lucketts Community Center. There, with the help of volunteers, they learned basic job skills and began earning their own paychecks.
The first contract they received was cutting grass at the FAA in Leesburg.
Now, the program has expanded to 122 Loudoun and Fairfax residents who work on-site at a dozen businesses, punching time clocks, earning wages and growing individually.
ECHO, or Every Citizen Has Opportunities, places residents with development disabilities at jobs from its headquarters, now in Leesburg.
For its participants and their family members, the program has made a world of difference.
January Walker, a 28-year-old woman with developmental disabilities, has been working at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston for seven years now.
"Her self-esteem is just incredible," said her mother, Susannah Walker, a seventh-grade teacher. "It means everything. She's very proud. She's more excited about her paycheck than I am about mine."
At the U.S.G.S., everyone knows her daughter's name. She spends a lot of her day canofiling, or feeding data into a computer that will convert it to microfilm. Because of her success, she's advanced to checking other ECHO employees' work for quality control.
January's goal is to someday live on her own, and earning a paycheck is the first large step. Her first day on the job, she was nervous — but those days have passed.
"I feel great," she said. "Working with the Survey is like a family."
ECHO'S longtime marketing manager, Karen Russell, approaches businesses to offer ECHO's services.
Russell worked for the county's social services office before learning about an opening at ECHO 28 years ago.
"I just really enjoyed meeting them and being around them," she said. "When I heard ECHO had an opening, I grabbed it."
Russell and ECHO's small staff work hard to match each participate with the right job, be it restocking shelves at Target or shredding documents at the Loudoun County School Board. Shredding, an easy and in-demand skill, is one job that almost all ECHO's work sites use. "We're big shredders, and they love doing it," said employee supervisor Betsy Pendergast.
Giving each participant options empowers them, Russell said.
"One of the biggest goals is that the person is happy with where they are and what they're doing," she said.
Prototype Productions in Dulles is one of ECHO's newest employers. Participants help assemble products that end up in the medical and defense sectors.
"It is truly a gift," said president Joe Travez. "We've developed very good friendships. It's always light-hearted conversation with ECHO people. They become brothers and sisters, in a way."
Once matched, participants work in small groups on-site at local businesses under the watch of an ECHO supervisor.
Pendergast has supervised ECHO employees at the School Board for two years. At the cramped old school administration building in Leesburg, her employees sat in the hall as they put together new teacher welcome bags and binders.
Now, at the new school administration building in Broadlands, they get their own room.
For Pendergast, who worked with the Special Olympics in the past, working with ECHO has provided a supreme satisfaction.
"There's instant feedback," she said. "When I'm helping one of my individuals, I can see they're less stressed because they understand what they're doing."
IN THE back of ECHO's building is a thriving business: ECHO Direct Mail Service.
On Tuesday, a dozen ECHO workers were applying labels, stuffing envelopes and, naturally, shredding. As oldies played on the radio, the employees worked diligently, sending out mail from the Potomac Station Homeowners Association, Northern Virginia Community College and 150 other businesses.
Not only does ECHO contract out its participants, here it employs its own.
Some ECHO participants stay for years. Others, with less severe disabilities, move on to independent work at Target.
Whatever a person's disability is, ECHO works to amplify his or her strength.
"We try to increase each individual's talent," Russell said. "Somebody may be really good at labeling, somebody may be really good with cutting [color samples]. With the whole team, the job gets done."
To learn more about ECHO, visit www.echoworks.org.