July 23, 2019
CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, VA — Today, Chesterfield County public safety and general services departments kicked off the second 16-week Growth Through Opportunity, or GTO, cadet academy, providing seven adults with varying intellectual and developmental disabilities the opportunity to learn job skills from county employees. The goal of the academy is for each cadet to develop the knowledge, skills and abilities to earn employment upon completion of the program. Chesterfield is the only locality in the region to partner with GTO.
“The Growth Through Opportunity program is a perfect partnership that provides Chesterfield County public safety departments, working alongside Chesterfield General Services and Fleet Maintenance, an opportunity to grow and learn from our interaction with those members of our community who have disabilities,” said Chesterfield County Sheriff Karl Leonard.
With assistance from the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS), GTO provides adults who have autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy and other unique challenges an opportunity to gain valuable job skills and social experience.
“They not only learn a lot about how the county operates and the services it offers, but they leave with essential and marketable skills through hands-on program activities that will help them secure employment within our community,” Leonard said.
The seven cadets participating in this academy, whose ages range from 19-37, are all from Chesterfield and will train alongside members of the county’s Sheriff’s Office, Police Department, Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department and General Services Department.
“Growth Through Opportunity is an amazing experience for GTO Cadets and Chesterfield County public safety agencies and department personnel,” said GTO founder Travis Akins. “There’s nothing better than learning from one another in a controlled environment to benefit all involved - and that’s what we do best. Being joined by the Jewish National Fund and Israeli Defense Forces is super exciting.”
The success of the GTO Cadet program gained national attention with representatives from the Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF) and its Israel-based partner organization, Special in Uniform (SIU), attending the kickoff. GTO and SIU are looking to partner in the U.S. to share Israel’s SIU model of inclusion for those with unique challenges alongside United States Military and National Guard. 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. The focus is to determine the unique talent of each individual and then place them in a job.
“Israel is changing the world for the better and is developing innovative social services to lift up the lives of society’s most vulnerable,” said Yossi Kahana, director of JNF’s Task Force on Disabilities. “Together with JNF’s affiliate, Special in Uniform, Israel is becoming the ‘Start-Up Nation’ for social innovation.”
GTO was founded in November 2014 by Travis Akins, a law enforcement veteran who spent many years instructing critical autism and disabilities awareness training to first responders. GTO is designed to be mutually beneficial while enhancing safety, community connectivity, pride, confidence, life skills, mental and physical fitness, and employment.
GTO is currently endorsed by the National Sheriffs’ Association, The Arc of the United States, National Down Syndrome Society, and has been highlighted by the U.S. Department of Justice, Special Olympics and Project Lifesaver International.
You can follow the cadet’s progress at https://www.facebook.com/GTOCadets/.