The sky’s the limit for young Chincoteague, Va., man’s dreams
by Jim Robertson, Staff Writer
Kaleb Jeffries only watches one TV channel — The Weather Channel. The repeated use of drone footage in covering storms and viewing ocean life from above fascinates the 23-year-old, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. His condition causes him to become fixated on certain things or topics, such as the weather and how electronics work.
Kaleb, a 2018 graduate with honors from Chincoteague High School, is a science and technology enthusiast, especially when it comes to meteorology. Growing up near the NASA flight facility at Wallops Island played a significant role in influencing Kaleb’s passion for studying weather patterns and events.
In September 2013, the young weather fanatic had a unique opportunity to meet his idol, Jim Cantore, a well-known meteorologist who covers extreme weather events. Cantore was in town for the inaugural flight of NASA’s Global Hawk aircraft. The unmanned aerial vehicle offers scientists a unique vantage point to observe atmospheric conditions with its ability to fly at 65,000 feet and for periods of up to 30 hours.
Cantore was dining at Steamers Restaurant & Sports Bar in Chincoteague, Va., where Kaleb’s stepfather, Jonah Baker, managed the bar. He told the meteorologist about Kaleb and how he idolized him. Baker asked Cantore if he could wait 5 minutes for Kaleb to arrive. He agreed and spent nearly an hour visiting with Kaleb and took a few photos together that later appeared on Cantore’s Twitter feed. He gave the 13-year-old a signed football and later tweeted a photo of them with a caption reading, “Say hello to Kaleb Jeffries. He is Chincoteague’s finest weather forecaster!”
Ten years later, Kaleb still talks about that day as if it were yesterday. He and Cantore maintain contact via Twitter.
“It’s been difficult here on the Eastern Shore,” says Kara Jeffries, Kaleb’s mother and a science instructor at Chincoteague High School. “There’s just not as many opportunities for people like my son, or kids like him.” After high school, Kaleb participated in the vocational evaluation offered by the Wilson Workforce and Rehabilitation Center, which helps students learn more about themselves and potential career paths they can consider. Unfortunately, nothing substantial came from that effort.
“Kaleb has always been a hard worker,” says Kara proudly. Since age 14, he has worked seasonally bussing tables at the Crab Shack and, more recently, Pico Taqueria.
A POWERFUL PARTNERSHIP
During his freshman year of high school, Kaleb was referred to a program offered through the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services. The mission of DARS is to improve the employment, quality of life, security and independence of older Virginians, Virginians with disabilities and their families. Candidates must be referred to the program. Anyone may refer a person with a disability who wants to work.
While at a spring 2022 career fair at Eastern Shore Community College, Robin Sexauer, the Jeffries’ main contact with the DARS program, visited the Sentinel Robotic Solutions table, where Jason Taylor was promoting an upcoming workforce development training course for drone operations.
“We initiated a conversation about current drone programs and the potential for kids with disabilities to learn about drones and the workforce,” says Taylor, SRS director of unmanned aerial systems programs. “After the meeting, Robin and I, with support from SRS leadership and a partnership with ESCC, immediately started the process to develop a new program and hold the first class as soon as possible.”
Kara explains, “Knowing about Kaleb’s interest in drones, Robin with DARS informed us of a drone class being offered at Eastern Shore Community College.” A hopeful and excited Kaleb attended the class for students with disabilities. The class was conducted by Sentinel Robotic Solutions, an unmanned systems consulting partnership located beside the Wallops Flight Facility. SRS has trained more than 100 drone operators for the electric cooperatives in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. As members of A&N Electric Cooperative, which serves the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Smith Island in Somerset County, Md., SRS has also helped lead several aerial projects and training at the co-op.
Taylor, class instructor, quickly noticed something different about Kaleb. “Out of all the students we had, Kaleb showed great interest in UAS and how weather may affect it,” he says. This led to Taylor inviting Kaleb to sign up for an upcoming UAS Part 107 class to obtain his Remote Pilot Certificate. UAS Part 107 is the rule administered by the Federal Aviation Administration regarding regulations, operating requirements and procedures for safely flying drones.
“The DARS partnership with SRS provides exceptional opportunities for our consumers with disabilities to explore and pursue college and careers in aerospace and other highly technical fields,” explains Sexauer. In addition to providing vocational training through classroom instruction and tours of academic programs at ESCC, SRS partnered with DARS to develop work experience programs in the community teaching hands-on skills required in these fields. “These opportunities have given the consumers the confidence and direction to pursue avenues that they might not have ever considered. Parent participation has improved as a result of these programs as well.
Kaleb continued to impress Taylor with his enthusiasm and knowledge of weather patterns and events. After all, his idol is one of America’s favorite meteorologists.
Taylor makes an effort to identify students with strengths that could benefit the SRS programs. During a conversation with SRS Founder and COO Peter Bale and CEO Erika Bale, owners of SRS, Taylor describes Kaleb by saying, “The kid’s smarter than I am.”
He made a case for including Kaleb in a planned demonstration involving a simulated terrorist attack at the Port of Virginia in Norfolk in spring 2023.
As an official intern with SRS, Kaleb was heavily immersed in the operation at the port, assisting with setup and conducting operations. This involved collaborating with the team to prepare the necessary equipment, including robotics systems, sensors and communication devices.
“Kaleb played a pivotal role in setting up the demonstration area, ensuring that all the required tools and systems were installed properly and functioning,” says Taylor. “He displayed a high level of technical competence and attention to detail during this process, ensuring that all components were in working order.”
Weather reporting was a key aspect of Kaleb’s internship. He diligently monitored weather conditions and collected data using meteorological instruments and online resources. “Kaleb displayed a strong understanding of weather patterns and their potential impact on UAS operations,” says SRS Lead Engineer Chase Riley, who led the demonstration. He designed and established a preflight checklist that covered all items required for safe and efficient operations for the tethered aerostat communication relay — basically, a weather balloon. His setup, maintenance and monitoring of the system was critical to the success of the demonstration.
During the demonstration, a highlight for Kaleb was being able to stay in his own hotel room. “That was so wonderful!” exclaims Kaleb, who also learned some life skills and how to conduct himself during a business dinner. “Don’t over-order from the menu,” he recalls. “And continue conversation until everyone’s food arrives.”
Kara has noticed a significant change in her son since participating in the project at the port. “He is more motivated and finally has some direction and purpose,” she says. “It’s nice to see him working toward a goal.” The goal is to pass the FAA drone certification, which could lead to a career. He was one correct answer away from his goal on the last attempt.
Like many students on the spectrum, Kaleb never cared much for school. The drone class inspired a shift in his attitude. “It was the first time I have seen Kaleb want to attend class,” says Kara.
A weather fanatic since age 3, Kaleb’s experience with SRS has taught him that he can still have a career that includes studying weather without becoming a meteorologist with a college degree. Kara credits Sexauer for this newfound hope and optimism for Kaleb’s future. She has been instrumental in finding opportunities for him to explore his interests. “If it wasn’t for Robin, Kaleb would never have worked with SRS or taken the drone class,” she says. “We are so grateful.”
Since that first conversation at the career fair, SRS staff has mentored other students with drone operations and engineering. Noah Ferebee, an intern referred by DARS and a student in one of Taylor’s UAS classes, assisted SRS with a 120-mile transmission line inspection on the A&N Electric Cooperative system. Currently, Abhiram Gaddam, a student at Parkside High School in Salisbury, Md., is assisting SRS engineers with design and development of multiple land and air system prototyping, including work with solid modeling computer-aided design.
The concern for community displayed by these electric co-op members is consistent with the guiding principles followed by A&N Electric Cooperative. Quality of life continues to improve on the Eastern Shore, thanks to the thoughtful acts of people like Sexauer, Taylor and companies like Sentinel Robotic Solutions.
Together, they’re making dreams become reality.
“DARS’ partnership with SRS through its drone programs has been a game-changer for individuals with disabilities on the Eastern Shore,” says DARS Commissioner Kathy Hayfield. “We work with many students interested in robotics or gaming and the potential transferable skills to drone operation opens the doors for numerous careers.