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A man and two women stand in front of the Virginia seal and two flags. The man has one hand on a book and the other shaking one of the women's hands as he's sworn into his new position.

Chris Martin Appointed by Governor to State Rehabilitation Council

SOAR365’s Supported Employment program is growing fast under Chris’ expert leadership.

If it wasn’t for one Boy Scout camp director, Chris Martin might have been a CPA. Chris was busy studying accounting at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) while working summers at the camp. One day, his boss made a fateful demand.

“He wanted me to work with people with intellectual disabilities,” says Chris. “He had seen that I was really good at working with 11-year-olds that were homesick” and thought Chris might have the patience and compassion needed for the job. One week later, Chris was hooked. He soon changed his major to special education, where he fell in love with the supported employment courses that were part of his degree program.

Though his career took a winding road from there, helping students with disabilities find jobs in Henrico County and managing tech data for schools in the private sector, Chris knew he always wanted to get back to supported employment. He accepted the director position at SOAR365 in 2019 and hasn’t looked back.

Under Chris’ leadership, the program is growing fast. In 2024, SOAR365’s Supported Employment program served 90 people, up from just 42 the year before, and Chris hired additional employment specialists (or “job coaches”) to meet the demand.

His staff takes the time to help people with disabilities identify their interests, build career skills, try out different workplaces and secure the right job for them. SOAR365’s job coaches also help with training, tools, and on-the-job support until participants are independent and successful in their new role. Similarly, Chris is there to mentor his team every step of the way.

It’s a rewarding job, and one that Chris excels at. That’s why, in May 2024, Governor Youngkin appointed Chris to the State Rehabilitation Council.

Chris has a close working relationship with the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS), who encouraged him to apply. “One of the things DARS is seeing is that I’m all about the latest and greatest philosophies, models, and evidence-based practices. Because I stay current, I’m willing to try new things,” explains Chris.

He also believes it’s essential that SOAR365 works together with state agencies toward a common goal. “It’s not all about me. It’s about how do we serve, all of us together in the Richmond area, this person who’s come to us to be employed,” says Chris. Sometimes that means collaborating with other employment service organizations (ESOs) as well, even if they could be seen as competitors. “We all share ideas and learn from each other,” he says.

The position is not Chris’ first time serving on a professional committee. He previously served on a state rehabilitation council with the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired (DBVI). He’s currently leading the training committee of the Employment First Advisory Board with the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS). And both DARS and John Walker, SOAR365 President & CEO, asked Chris to serve on the Employment Services Organization Steering Committee (ESOSC) as a vaACCSES representative.

He’s excited that this new opportunity will help SOAR365 stay on the cutting edge of supported employment. “I’m at the forefront of some of the decisions being made and some of the things that are coming down the pike,” says Chris. “It’s a great way to not only hear what’s going on from DARS but also to be able to make suggestions or say, ‘Have you thought about doing this?’ Really ask those questions that we should be asking.”

The Council makes sure to include members with disabilities and those who have used DARS’ services in the past. It also includes voices from business and industry, who represent prospective employers. This helps organizations like SOAR365 to consider “what are businesses looking for, what do they need, how do we prepare people with disabilities for those needs?” says Chris.

Supported Employment Manager, Kia Clarke, also attended the swearing in ceremony.

By working together, members can find new models or creative solutions that Chris is quick to share with his team, putting them to the test in real-time. He is a champion of thinking outside the box to find personalized paths to success.

Chris is still a licensed special education teacher in Virginia and makes sure to spend lots of time reading and attending conferences. He’s also working closely with state agencies and universities on two supported employment grants:

  • The Real Pay for Real Jobs EPIC grant, which aims to eliminate subminimum wage employment for people with disabilities, and
  • The Project PEACE grant, focused on increasing collaboration between local school systems to help students with disabilities transition seamlessly into the workforce.

Through these efforts, “we’re creating the latest and greatest and deciding what that’s going to look like for Virginia in the future,” says Chris. One tool that shows promise is Photovoice. This approach to resume building involves participants taking photos of their accomplishments or favorite job-related tasks. It gives them more autonomy and control.

That empowerment is key. Chris notes that in the US, “we have a tendency of judging somebody before we really get to know a person.” That’s why his favorite part of his job is “watching folks get jobs when they’ve never had jobs before, or maybe they had one that didn’t work out. Just knowing that they can do it.”

He also enjoys “being able to prove to the community what people with disabilities can do. You just have to figure out how to build upon their strengths,” he says.

“When a person with a disability realizes their potential and realizes they can work and be just like everybody else in society, it makes me feel really good to know I had a part in that. That I had a part in their future, their goals and what they wanted to do.”

Too often, Chris says, “they’ve been told all their lives what they can’t do, can’t do, can’t do.” He and his staff are passionate about helping them prove others wrong.

To learn more about SOAR365’s Supported Employment program, visit or contact Chris Martin at (804) 381-5405 or [email protected].

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