It was standing room only for the first graduation ceremony honoring the first class of Growth Through Opportunity (GTO) cadets. For the past six months, four young men with special needs have worked with the Roanoke Police Department to gain essential employment skills, from paper shredding to fleet management. Led by Officer Travis Akins, Crime Prevention Specialist for the City of Roanoke, the four GTO cadets are the first to complete the program, and it was clear from the expressions on every single attendees’ faces the significance the GTO project has for the cadets, their families, the police department, and the entire Roanoke community.
“It’s not every day you see us get emotional,” said Officer Akins. “The success of this program is evident by the people in this room. We’re going to need the Civic Center for next year’s graduation.”
In addition to working with members of the police department, the GTO cadets spent one day each week with an employment specialist from Rehabilitative Services & Vocational Placement, Inc., such as Shannon Shaffer. “The GTO program has kicked down the door for these clients,” she said. “They all have resumes and continue building their skill sets to bring them to the next phase—full employment.”
Officer Akins shared stories about each cadet before presenting them with a plaque commemorating their achievements. Families of the graduates also received framed professional photos of their cadet in uniform. But the best part of the ceremony was the announcement that Akins would be offering each of the cadets paid employment with Disabilities Research Network, a nonprofit organization that provides services such as grocery shopping and housekeeping, among others, to the community.
“The police officers can learn as much from the cadets as they learn from our police officers,” said Roanoke Police Chief Chris Perkins.
The success of this program has lead to expansion. This fall, a new class of GTO cadets will work with the Roanoke Fire Department, as well as other organizations in Christiansburg, Bedford, Roanoke County and Botetourt.
Joshua "Coach" Leonard