By Angie Leonard
Leonard is the founder and former executive director of Blue Ridge Autism and Achievement Center. She is CEO of St. Vincent’s Home, and Autism Speaks’ state advocacy chair for adult services. Her son, Joshua, 19, was the first GTO Cadet.
Every summer, on our annual family vacation to Myrtle Beach, we frequented a special restaurant, not because they had wonderful pizza, but because of the middle-aged man who bused their tables. He obviously had special challenges. He was loud, and not exactly polished, but he was the fastest bus boy you have ever seen. He would clear a table in 20 seconds flat, or less, wipe it down and always finish with a dramatic ending. Everyone in the restaurant would cheer for him, often with a standing ovation.
This eccentric man, who had obviously found his calling in life, would throw his arms up in the air and the patrons would run over to shake his hand and tip him. I can only imagine the number of people, like us, who visited this particular restaurant during the busy tourist season because he was allowed to be who he was. And what a great addition to that restaurant’s team, not just because of the smiles he brought to the faces of many people, but to their financial picture as well.
On May 28, the Roanoke City Police Department graduated its first class of Growth Through Opportunity (GTO) Cadets, a program supported by the Department of Rehabilitative Services and RSVP. The four smiling cadets received, with gratitude, their certificates of completion of this program and were greeted by fellow officers, friends, family members and the media.
This is more than just a feel-good story, although it does feel good. This is opportunity: The opportunity lies within the development of skills for these young men who have something to offer, opportunity to educate business owners and managers across the Roanoke Valley and throughout the state of Virginia, opportunity to educate the public that success does not lie in the way you look or how well you talk.
As GTO Cadet Tyler Caldwell’s mother, Kathy, stated, “Everyone thinks that they are ‘not normal.’ People like Tyler are what God meant for people to be. Tyler is the most caring, loving, non-judgmental person I know. I am not normal; he is the normal one. He has taught me so much. I am the luckiest person in the world.”
From the look of things, many of the Roanoke Police Department employees would agree. Emotions were strong for the toughest of tough in Roanoke. As one employee approached me at the end of the ceremony and said, with tears in his eyes, that he did not know what he was going to do without them there, I could only think to myself: What an impact!
The GTO Program is timely. Virginia is an Employment First initiative state; a critical priority for the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy. This push for change will result in “increased community-based, integrated employment opportunities for individuals with significant disabilities.” (U.S. Department of Labor) With 1 in 68 children diagnosed with autism, 1 in every 691 babies born with Down syndrome, and already 20 percent of the adult population (more than 1 million in Virginia) affected by a disability, we need support and we need for business leaders to step up to the plate and give these wonderful people a chance. I think most would be pleasantly surprised to see what an advantage they can be to your organization. The Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services provides services and supports to individuals with challenges that are at no cost to the employer, and removes liability. There are additional benefits to employers as well, including tax credits and deductions.
We have a lot of work to do in Virginia. We are state number 48 for allocating funds to programs for individuals with disabilities. Yet, we are the eighth wealthiest state. There is a need for education of our state agencies. The key to success for these folks is to embrace who they are, groom their strengths and refrain from the “change them” mentality. Acceptance in our communities is a must. It’s easy. Ask the Roanoke City Police Department. Take a chance. Be bold, like Chief Chris Perkins. Step out. Be the change. Speak up to your legislators. Show them that Roanoke is a supportive community, working to the good of everyone. We can impact this state, as well as lives, for the good!
Copyright 2014 - BRAAC