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Posted on: November 8, 2019

Chesterfield’s Growth Through Opportunity Academy Celebrates Success with Second Graduation Ceremony

General Services/Public Safety

November 8, 2019

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, VA — Today, Chesterfield County celebrated the graduation of seven adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities from its second, 16-week Growth Through Opportunity (GTO) Academy. GTO Academy provides adults of all ages living with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other unique challenges an opportunity to gain valuable life skills and social experience. One of the academy’s goals is for each cadet to develop the knowledge, skills and abilities to earn employment upon completion of the program.

Cadets Camari Cobb, Benjamin Cunningham, Richard Dabney, Robert Hopkins, Tavon Macklin, David Witt and Samantha Zschaber make up the second graduating class.

The cadets participated in hands-on learning experiences with mentors from Chesterfield County departments including Sheriff, Fire and EMS, Police and General Services, who partnered with vocational counselors from the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services.

Cadet Tavon Macklin, 20, said he learned several skills during the academy, including how to maintain county vehicles, how to cut grass and how to administer CPR. Though he had not cooked for a large group of people before, the academy taught him and his fellow cadets how to prepare dinner for the fire department. Now, he wants to pursue a career in food service as a chef.

Camari Cobb, 20, believes working with her fellow cadets during GTO Academy helped her gain confidence as a leader. “I’ve definitely been told that I’m a leader,” she said. “I kind of didn’t see that at first, but since I started here, I see it.”

This year, GTO Academy offered an aquatics safety program in partnership with the Chester Family YMCA. According to the National Autism Association, drowning is one of the leading causes of death among children and adults with autism. This program taught cadets how to swim and survive in water.

“I’m really glad that we’re being able to take this opportunity, and I’m really hoping that this is going to be something that the GTO program continues to do well into the future,” said Cadet Robert Hopkins, 20, of the aquatics program.

GTO was founded by Travis Akins, a law enforcement veteran who spent years training first responders on autism and disabilities awareness. GTO is designed to be mutually beneficial to cadets and instructors while enhancing safety, community connectivity, pride, confidence, life skills and mental and physical fitness.

“This program was created for a lot of reasons to help people with unique challenges,” Akins said. “Personally, it means the world to me to help people with intellectual disabilities like my own son. To see the program grow for young men and women who wouldn’t be afforded this opportunity otherwise, the impact on my own son and thousands similar to him, is heartwarming.”

“We provide confidence and hope. It’s the most rewarding work I’ve ever done in my lifetime. It’s a win-win for everyone involved,” Akins said.

GTO has been highlighted at the Jewish National Fund International Conference in Washington D.C. and featured alongside the Israeli Defense Forces’ Special in Uniform program. The goal of SIU is to integrate young people with autism and other disabilities into the Israel Defense Forces and, in turn, into Israeli society. In collaboration with SIU and Chris Neeley, chair for the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities, Akins is working to launch the program in the South Carolina National Guard in 2020.

GTO is currently endorsed by the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Arc of the United States. In 2017, GTO was recognized on Capitol Hill by the National Down Syndrome Society as the Champion of Change Organization of the Year and received an Innovations and Bright Ideas Award from the Kennedy School of Business at Harvard University.

The inaugural GTO Academy was launched in December 2018 after Chesterfield County Sheriff Karl Leonard heard Akins speak about the program. Believing in the program’s value, Leonard worked with Akins to launch the first-ever class for the Richmond regional area led by Chesterfield County. That class consisted of five cadets who graduated in March 2019.

Akins says collaboration and partnerships make the GTO Academy possible. “It’s 100 percent our goal to expand the program nationwide within five years,” he said of the high interest in the program’s accomplishments.

Currently, GTO Academy is the only program of its type in the U.S. In the last six months, GTO has expanded beyond Virginia into Minnesota, New Jersey, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee and California.

Click for a video about GTO:

Click for a video of the GTO Academy graduation:

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