It’s been almost a year since Chesterfield’s Growth Through Opportunity cadet academy began. On Friday, Nov. 8, the organization’s founder, Travis Akins, and others... Academy for special needs youth marks first year

It’s been almost a year since Chesterfield’s Growth Through Opportunity cadet academy began.

On Friday, Nov. 8, the organization’s founder, Travis Akins, and others hosted the program’s second graduation ceremony. Included were seven graduates of the 16-week program: Camari Cobb, Benjamin Cunningham, Richard Dabney, Robert Hopkins, Tavon Macklin, David Witt and Samantha Zschaber.

The cadets participated in hands-on learning experiences with mentors from Chesterfield County departments including sheriff, fire and EMS, police and general services, and vocational counselors from the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services.

GTO provides young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities the opportunity to learn job skills from county employees.

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.

“We’ve built transferable skills,” Akins told a crowd gathered at the county government’s public meeting room. “All [of the graduates] will be employed within 90 days.”

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. Although 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 foodservice 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.”

Akins, who worked in the criminal justice field in a variety of capacities for 23 years, launched the program in Roanoke in November 2014 while a full-time law enforcement officer. The purpose was to improve police relations with citizens with various intellectual and developmental disabilities and to use first responders as mentors to train people with disabilities ways to win in life and overcome obstacles.

“We live 200 miles from here, but work here every single day because we love these guys,” Akins said, referring to himself and his wife. “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,” he said.

WRVA 1140-AM radio host Jeff Katz offered welcoming remarks at the beginning of last week’s event.

Katz said he has a special needs daughter and noted that he was previously a police officer. “What Travis has done to start this program just warms my heart,” Katz said.

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

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.

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.

Also at the Nov. 8 event, Akins welcomed two mothers of special needs children from Chattanooga, Tenn., and said they would soon be starting a GTO program there.