New Jersey program offers law enforcement job opportunities to those with special needs

MONMOUTH COUNTY, New Jersey (WABC) -- The Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office held a kickoff event Wednesday for a new program called "Growth Through Opportunity," which provides citizens with special needs citizens an opportunity to serve as interns with local municipalities.

Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni said the goal is for the interns, called cadets, to learn valuable job skills and contribute to the diversity and inclusivity of the agencies.

The pilot program is a collaboration between The Arc of New Jersey, The Arc of the US, and local police departments, including five Monmouth County law enforcement agencies.

"We are excited to be the first county in New Jersey to pilot this program, which is being supported by grants from The Arc of the United States and The Arc of New Jersey," Gramiccioni said. "This program has huge potential for providing important job skills and a lifeline for our local citizens with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It also provides law enforcement agencies with an opportunity to learn from the cadets and to gain perspective on interacting with persons who have intellectual and developmental disabilities every day, in non-emergency situations."

The Growth Through Opportunity program was founded by retired law enforcement Officer Travis Akins, who launched the program in November 2014 with the Roanoke Police Department in Virginia.

Akins, whose son became the very first cadet, is a passionate crusader and is working hard to spread his Growth Through Opportunity program to other law enforcement agencies throughout the country.

The program is designed to provide adults of all ages with intellectual or developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other unique challenges, an opportunity to gain valuable job skills and social experience in a professional setting.

"The end goal is that the experiences that the cadets have in our workplaces will translate into their ability to obtain employment after they graduate from this program," Akins said.

Adult participants spend 16 weeks volunteering at the various law enforcement agencies across the nation receiving career and life skills training.

Each cadet is given their own uniform and can work at the department for up to 12 hours per week, and officers work with each candidate and their families to hone the volunteer experience specifically for their interests and goals.

Cadets participate in the training program with the goal of transitioning into paid employment upon graduation.

The program yields a 98 percent graduation rate, and since its inception, the program has graduated 15 cadet classes in Minnesota and Virginia.

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