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April 13, 2021

Johns Hopkins APL Staff Members Step Up to Mentor Students with Special Needs

Image of Bradley speaking over Zoom with his mentor

Bradley speaks over Zoom with his mentor, Hannah Kowpak. Kowpak is one of 12 APL staff members who volunteer for Project SEARCH, a program that supports the transition from public school to the world of work.

Credit: Johns Hopkins APL

Image of Xochitl Oliveros answering an urgent call from The Arc of Howard County

Xochitl Oliveros answered an urgent call from The Arc of Howard County to serve as a mentor for Project SEARCH, which has been operating virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Credit: Xochitl Oliveros

Image of Madison Godleski

Madison Godleski had been looking for an opportunity to volunteer in the community when she heard the call for mentors from Project SEARCH.

Credit: Madison Godleski

Learning to become independent sometimes means asking for help. That’s one of many lessons APL staff members are teaching a group of students with special needs as part of Project SEARCH.

Project SEARCH is a one-year program designed for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are in their last year of high school eligibility with the Howard County Public School System. In partnership with county government, the Autism Society, The Arc of Howard County and other organizations, Project SEARCH supports the transition from public school to the world of work.

Project SEARCH interns exchange emails with their mentors each week and meet regularly over Zoom. “I'm learning how to be professional and communicate better,” said Bradley (for privacy reasons, last names of the students are omitted). “My goal is to find a job working with kids after Project SEARCH. My mentor [software developer Hannah Kowpak] has worked with other students like me before, and I am learning a lot from her.”

Like Bradley, Ryan also believes his exchanges with his mentor, Xochitl Oliveros, a reverse engineer, will have lasting impact. “I have learned how to be a professional at work and how to send business emails,” he said. “I am working on being more independent in my life, and this [program] has really helped me do that.”

Kowpak and Oliveros are among 12 APL staff members who answered an urgent call from The Arc of Howard County to serve as mentors for Project SEARCH, which has been operating virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. APL’s All About Autism Club and STEM Program Office quickly stood up an online mentoring program, developed training for APL volunteers and worked out the logistics of distance mentoring.

“The Project SEARCH staff did a great job with our training,” said Kowpak, who also serves as secretary for the All About Autism Club. “We learned to characterize and consider the students’ abilities first, before their disability. Our discussion topics are things we often take for granted, like how to create a household budget or stay on top of work assignments. I’ve been able to provide advice to Bradley, which is pretty cool.”

“I know what a difference it makes when someone takes the time to encourage a young person,” said Oliveros. “To see Ryan’s face and his reaction and his smile during our Zoom meetings, it makes my day.”

“Working with Justin has been awesome,” said Madison Godleski, an analyst who had been looking for an opportunity to get involved in the community when she read about the call for volunteers. “We talk about time management and how to stay focused. I shared with him that, if you’re getting frustrated with a task, leave it for a bit and come back fresh. He tells me that he is putting those tips into practice at his current job.”

Matthew Hart helped launch the program and serves as a mentor. “I was thrilled but not surprised with the response from our staff members,” said Hart. “We have broad participation from across APL’s departments and sectors. It’s consistent with the strong sense of service that exists at APL.”

With support from Project SEARCH staff, interns and their mentors cover prescribed topics, including time management, decision-making, professional communication, and how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted work. Using a Google template, the interns practice using appropriate email etiquette while developing their written communication skills.

“The interns are developing competitive technology skills that will be critical for finding jobs in the new world of virtual work,” said Natalie Dohner, The Arc of Howard County’s Project SEARCH program manager. “We are grateful that APL staff members stepped up so quickly to help these young people.”

Although the Lab’s mentoring partnership with The Arc of Howard County through Project SEARCH is new, APL has a long history of support for the organization and has hired five people supported by The Arc in administrative, lab and custodial positions.

For more information on The Arc of Howard County and Project SEARCH, visit

Media contacts:

Amanda Zrebiec, 240-592-2794,
Anne Friedenberg Swanson, 240-592-5482,

The Applied Physics Laboratory, a not-for-profit division of The Johns Hopkins University, meets critical national challenges through the innovative application of science and technology. For more information, visit