CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, VA — Today, Chesterfield County celebrated the successful completion of the inaugural 16-week Growth Through Opportunity (GTO) cadet academy, with the graduation of five adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, in this first-ever program for the region. GTO provides adults of all ages who have autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other unique challenges an opportunity to gain valuable job skills and social experience.
Cadets Conor “C.J.” Gallagher, Brandon Garcia, Christopher Brennan, Conner Ackerman and Dakaree Mitchell make up the first graduating class. One of the participants has already experienced proof the program works as he has already started working a new job.
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.
“I see me and everyone in this program getting a job and being successful,” said Cadet C.J. Gallagher, 23, noting Growth Through Opportunity has opened the door to a brighter future. “All I see is positiveness. I liked the teamwork and how everyone supported me.”
Looking at his uniform, Gallagher said, “I wear this hat and shirt with pride. I will probably frame this because it means so much to me.”
Growth Through Opportunity was started by Travis Akins, a veteran law enforcement officer from Roanoke, Virginia, who retired early to focus on the GTO cadet academy full time.
“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.”
Chesterfield County Sheriff Karl Leonard heard Akins speak about the GTO cadet academy during a presentation last year, saw the value of the program and worked with Akins to launch the first-ever class for the Richmond regional area led by Chesterfield County.
Akins says collaboration and partnerships make the GTO cadet 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.
Video about GTO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-BPWXNFgk_E&t=1s