On-the-job training

Maggie Kollmorgen just finished her internship on Capitol Hill, performing mail and typing duties in Rep. Raúl Grijalva’s (D-Ariz.) office.

“It’s been very good for me to work here,” she told The Hill. “It was a good experience for me to do.”

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While her duties may have been typical of most interns, Kollmorgen is anything but. Born with Down syndrome, she is part of a unique new program matching individuals with intellectual disabilities with congressional internships.

This internship program isn’t just a political issue for initiator Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.); it’s a very personal one. He has a 21-year-old son with Fragile X syndrome, an X-chromosome abnormality.

“My family — plus many other families with kids with intellectual disabilities — typically they go through a high school process, and then they drop off the educational face of the earth,” Harper told The Hill.

Last year, the congressman, in conjunction with the House Administration Committee staff and George Mason University, started the congressional internship program for people with intellectual disabilities to foster independence and teach workplace skills.

The program offers GMU students with special needs — typically ranging in age from late teens to mid-20s — the opportunity to work in lawmakers’ offices and perform workplace tasks.

“If you look at some of the tasks our interns are performing — be it filing, data entry — these are tasks that typical interns do, and these students are more than capable,” said Salley Wood, program coordinator and Administration Committee spokeswoman.

Wood said the pilot internship program in spring of 2010 included just six congressional offices. As of the spring 2011 semester, that number had jumped to 16.

Both Harper and Wood are hoping that number grows. To that end, the program brought on a fellow this month to help coordinate with member offices and increase awareness about the program around Capitol Hill.

Leah Katz-Hernandez, an HSC Foundation Youth Transitions Fellow at the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), is more than familiar with the workforce roadblocks and obstacles faced by those with special needs.

Katz-Hernandez is deaf, communicating to The Hill through a sign-language interpreter. She said her goals for the program include overcoming misconceptions and stigmas about what people with disabilities can accomplish.

“This is a great opportunity to place people with intellectual disabilities into the workforce, to help people who don’t have previous experience with individuals with intellectual disabilities realize that those people are in fact capable,” she said. “People with disabilities really do want to work; they’re very motivated. They’re very frustrated because of the discrimination they experience.”

Katz-Hernandez experienced that discrimination firsthand on Capitol Hill, when she interned here through a separate AAPD program.

“Someone tried to place me in an office on the Hill, and as this office contact heard about my background and qualifications, this person was impressed and interested in me,” she said. “However, once the person found out I was deaf, the reaction changed to ‘What could a deaf person do in a congressional office?’ 

“When I heard of what had happened, it really hit me: Why can’t a deaf person work in a congressional office?” Katz-Hernandez said. “That incident really showed how much people have no idea about what deaf people are capable of. They only think of what hearing people can do.”

Aside from confronting discrimination, the program also increases interns’ independence and confidence, coordinators and participants said.

For Jennifer Labbe, a job coach at the George Mason LIFE Program for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the congressional internship program represents an “encompassing opportunity.”

“They’re not only learning about work on Capitol Hill,” she said, “but they’re also learning how to navigate public transportation.”

Describing the program as a “steppingstone” to greater independence, Labbe said it coincides with class work at GMU that instructs students in math, reading, writing and life skills.

Interns are also paired with other GMU students who are majoring in special education or who have an interest in working with people with disabilities. These mentors act as role models for the interns throughout their time on Capitol Hill, and answer any questions the host offices might have.

In Kia Hill’s time as an intern for Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.), she performed data entry, ran errands and delivered mail, all skills that will come in handy in her current job search. She graduated this month from the LIFE program.

“I loved it. I’m going to miss it,” she said. “I loved being there every week. I can’t think of any negative things.”

Kollmorgen, Grijalva’s intern, echoed the sentiment, calling her experience lots of fun and expressing a desire to come back for another semester were her family not moving abroad.

For Grijalva, the feeling was mutual.

“My staff enjoyed having the help, and we all enjoyed Maggie as long as she was with us,” he wrote in an email to The Hill. “It’s a very smart, well-run, helpful program. We’re glad to continue the relationship,” he said, adding that he plans to accept another intern in the summer semester.

Harper, Wood and Katz-Hernandez are counting on member offices that have hosted an intern to continue their participation, but they also hope to involve more lawmakers in the future.

Last month Harper sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter encouraging members to sign up. The summer program will run for seven weeks, through June and July, with each office hosting an intern for one two-hour session each week. The deadline for lawmakers to sign up for the summer semester is May 20.

Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) has already committed to hosting his first intern from the program this summer.

“We’re thrilled to participate,” he said. “These are great people and we’re looking forward to this person being part of our team. I just think everybody who can work, we should help employ. And I’m glad to do it.”

Harper said he sees great value in the new program.

“You want [people with disabilities] to be as independent as possible, and it’s so good for their self-confidence,” he said. “If you can help their independence, and if you can help somebody move to a point where they can get real jobs, then that relieves what they might have to receive.”

That isn’t the only benefit for these interns, though, Labbe said.

“To see how proud the students are, that’s just priceless,” she said. “They’re learning and they’re engaged, and they’re so proud to be able to say they’re a Capitol Hill intern.”