Frank Vaughn loves to wash pots and pans. In fact, the personable 21 year-old Alexandrian loves everything about his new job -- from clearing tables to scraping dishes. "But I like washing the pots and pans the best," he says with the fresh-faced excitement of a youngster at his own birthday party.

Vaughn's job as a bus boy might not seem a bright rung on most career ladders, but Vaughn, who is mentally retarded, considers it is a giant step toward independence -- a step his parents and teachers never thought he could take.

Vaughn works at a Holiday Inn off Telegraph Road in Alexandria, but last week he was at the hotel for a different reason. He and 12 other mentally retarded adults gathered with their families and case workers to celebrate their successes in the working world.

Through a 6-month-old federally funded program, Project Transition, 12 adults have found jobs and the 13th is in training. Ranging in age from 21 to 37, they are men and women who would have been shuttled off to institutions 10 or 20 years ago, said Judson Vaughn (no relation to Frank Vaughn), a spokesman for the project.

"But these days, the mood of the public is changing," Vaughn said."The ground rule here is, if you put people in a normal situation, they'll act normally. That's something an institution can't offer."

In the six weeks Frank Vaughn has held his job, he has adjusted rapidly to the working world, his mother, Lucy Vaughn, said. At the same time, she said, the job has helped ease she and her husband's anxieties about their son's future.

"We won't be here forever," she said. "You might be financially independent, but still you would have to have somebody to take care of him and handle the money.

"Now, we hope he will continue with the job and maybe eventually get into a residential home."

Vaughn said his first day at work was "a little scary," but it was worse for his parents.

"The parents are always 10 times more nervous than their children, I think," said his father, William Vaughn. "We were apprehensive, almost afraid to try it. But it looks like it might work out. Maybe.

Patricia Connor believes she never could have overcome her fear of the working world if it had not been for Project Transition. Before she was referred to the project, she had turned down three job offers because "I didn't think I could make it too well."

Connor, 24, now works as a fitting room attendant at Garfinckel's in Springfield Mall. "I just love it, I get a 20 percent discount (on merchandise). I get to walk around the mall."

Like other clients of the project, Connor was assigned a job coordinator who trained her for two weeks until a suitable job was found. Once Connor was hired at Garfinckel's, her coordinator went with her to work each day for two weeks, offering advice, teaching her how to ride the bus and helping her adjust to the job. The coordinator remains available for any help Connor may need.

"That's part of the program," Judson Vaughn said, "learning to deal with the bus drivers . . . how to socialize with the people at work. Things the rest of us take for granted, they learn through this program."

Employers who hire Project Transition clients can claim a tax credit of 50 percent of the employe's first-year wages and 25 percent of second-year wages.

The Holiday Inn was among the first firms to offer aid to Project Transition.

"There is a place in any business for these people," said Don Gates, a Holiday Inn vice president. "These people have a sense of achievement and pride.

"Achievement is the greatest thing. Whether you want to own up to it or not, everyone is seeking achievement. To a lot of people, that might mean making a million dollars. To others, achievement is the ability to hold down a job when you've never been able to."

The project was begun last year when staff members at the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board and the Virginia Department of Rehabilitative Services agreed that a program was needed to help mentally retarded adults find jobs in the community.

Lacking space and a kitchen to train clients, they turned to the Holiday Inn, which volunteered its facilities.

The program geared up last November with the goal of finding jobs for 24 adults and a one-year grant of $85,000 under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). The project has applied for a $106,000 for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.