For 22-year-old Travis White, large group settings used to be overwhelming. White, who has autism, would not leave his family’s side, his father Tyrone said.
Then Travis joined the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office’s Growth Through Opportunity pilot initiative, the first of its kind in New Jersey to give law enforcement training to people with special needs.
A graduation ceremony for the five cadets who went through the 16-week program was held at the prosecutor’s office in Freehold, and Travis White’s parents watched as their son confidently chatted with officers he’d worked alongside at the Holmdel Police Department for the past four months.
Under the program, the cadets were placed with law enforcement agencies in Red Bank, Holmdel, Eatontown and Marlboro. The goal is to help individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities gain the skills needed for paid employment following their graduation.
Each cadet worked at least two days a week, and took on in-office duties such as managing phone lines, manning security booths and assisting bailiffs. Departments benefited from mentoring the cadets, too: they not only helped with day-to-day duties, but brought a fresh perspective to officers, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said.
“You helped our law enforcement officers understand what differently abled individuals go though, so maybe the next time they’re out there in the community they have a better understanding and better perspective,” Grewal told them at the graduation ceremony. “There are no limitations to each of your successes.”
Marlboro Police Chief Peter Pezzullo said of Matthew Zehl, his department’s cadet, “You brought so many good things to our police department. We can’t thank you enough.” Zehl is hoping to find employment with the town’s park system after graduating.
Holmdel Police Chief John Mioduszewski said his department will continue its participation in the program, and keep in touch with Travis White. The once shy man, Mioduszewski said, has “come out of his shell. He came in very nervous — now he’s like family. He will definitely be missed.”
“He is usually not sociable, but this gave him his own independence,” Tyrone White said. “He would never walk away from me before this. He walked away with his own independence.”
The internship initiative was founded in 2014 in the Roanoke, Virginia by a retired police officer whose son has special needs, and has taken root in other agencies. Disability advocate groups like The Arc of New Jersey supported the state pilot program through a grant.
Monmouth County Prosecutor Christopher Gramiccioni called for the program to expand to other counties: “My hope is, maybe take this program statewide,” he said. “I’d love to see that.”