FREEHOLD, N.J. — For Travis White, large group settings used to be overwhelming. The 22-year-old who has autism would feel uncomfortable leaving his family’s side, his father Tyrone said.

Then, White joined the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office’s “Growth Through Opportunity” pilot initiative last year, 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 recently, and Travis White’s parents watched as their son confidently chatted with officers he worked alongside at the Holmdel Police Department for the past four months.

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“He is usually not sociable, but this, it gave him his own independence,” Tyrone White said. “He would never walk away from me before this. He walked away with his own independence.”

Under the program, the cadets were placed with five law enforcement agencies — the prosecutor’s office and the Red Bank, Holmdel, Eatontown and Marlboro police departments. The internship initiative was founded in 2014 in the Roanoke Police Department in Virginia by a retired police officer whose son has special needs, and has taken root in other agencies in Virginia and Minnesota.

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 law enforcement duties, such as managing phone lines, manning security booths and assisting bailiffs.

Holmdel Police Chief John Mioduszewski said his department will continue its participation in the program, and keep in touch with their cadet, White. The once shy man, Mioduszewski said, has “come out of his shell.”

“He came in very nervous. Now he’s like family,” Mioduszewski said. “He will definitely be missed.”

Departments benefitted from mentoring the cadets, too, law enforcement officials said.

They not only helped with day-to-day duties, but brought a fresh perspective to officers, state Attorney General Gubrir 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 said. “There are no limitations of each of your successes.”

“They have changed our lives,” said Marlboro Police Chief Peter Pezzullo said. “You brought so many good things to our police department. We can’t thank you enough.”

Pezzullo said the department’s cadet, Matthew Zehl, is hoping to find employment with the town’s park system after graduating.

Disability advocacy groups like The Arc of the United States and The Arc of New Jersey supported the Garden State’s 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.”

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