On July 24, Wyoming Police Department will welcome its newest member: recent White Bear Lake High School graduate Shawn Sieleni. Sieleni, who has Down syndrome, is joining the volunteer force of the Police Department through a new program called the Growth Through Opportunity Police Cadet program. The program is designed to pair people with intellectual or developmental disabilities with law enforcement, allowing the individual to learn and train within the department’s office as well as providing opportunities for the police staff to learn more about people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.

According to the program’s website, “Founded in November 2014, the Growth Through Opportunity program is designed to provide adults of all ages with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, and other unique challenges an opportunity to gain valuable job skills and social experience.”

New to Minnesota

The program is the first of its kind in the state of Minnesota and is new to the national level, as well. Travis Akins, a 21-year veteran to law enforcement, developed the program in the state of Virginia, where it’s in use at 21 departments.

It made its way to Minnesota via Shawn Sieleni’s mother, Leslie, who was trying to find a good fit where her son could work and learn. A work opportunity had come along for Shawn that had the structure he needed for work, but was not a good place for his personality.

“I’m a social butterfly,” Shawn said.

Shawn has been very active in the community, is beloved by especially the White Bear Lake Police and Fire departments, and would like to be a police officer. So Leslie began doing research, trying to find a good work opportunity for him, when she spotted information about the program in Virginia.

“I came across it and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is ideal,’ because that’s what his dream is, is to be in law enforcement. And I couldn’t find any programs in the state of Minnesota that he could actually participate in,” Leslie said.

Roughly two years prior, Wyoming Police Chief Paul Hoppe had been approached by Wyoming Mayor Lisa Iverson about some sort of similar program.

“Probably, the original idea was stimulated by our mayor, Lisa Iverson,” Hoppe said. “She asked me if we had any programs with the department that worked with people with disabilities, and at the time we didn’t.”

It was something that sat in the back of his mind.

Leslie, after finding this program, saw Hoppe at a fundraising event this spring and approached him about it.

“I brought it up to him, and he was very excited about it,” Leslie said. “He wanted to do it right away.” 

“I looked at the program and said this is a mutual gain benefit and a win-win, as it helps us as law enforcement better prepare, and it helps with those with disabilities transition into adult life,” Hoppe said.

Win-win

“We’ve been working on this for probably five months and studying this program with the family who originally designed the program,” Hoppe said. “Then we reached out to the GTO program individual who designed it, who came up with the idea; we had conversations with him over several months about bringing it to our state.”

Hoppe and Leslie came out with a plan for a 16-week program that not only helps the cadets learn skills about the trade itself, but to learn life skills.

“He’ll learn how to fill out job applications, do job interviews, how to prepare and pack lunches for work, how to show up on time, and arrange for transportation … just different life skills, having just graduating from high school to actually being self-sufficient at work,” Hoppe said.

Not only will it be beneficial for Shawn and possible future cadets, the program is also geared toward helping police learn how to handle situations with individuals who have developmental or intellectual disabilities.

“For instance, Shawn doesn’t like it when you touch his head,” Leslie said.

It’s something that no one would really recognize unless they’re trained to be aware of how to react, and in certain situations can easily escalate into a negative impact.

“[The program] gives our officers an opportunity to build some experience working with intellectual or developmental disabilities. At the same time, it gives the people with IDD [an opportunity to work] with law enforcement officers and bridges the gap between law enforcement and individuals with disabilities and better preparing us to better work with those individuals in the field, should we come in contact with them there,” Hoppe said. “Hopefully through these learned experiences on both sides, we’re better at working with these individuals in the field.”

“There’s sensory issues they’re not aware of,” Leslie said. “I think it’s going to be good, if they get this exposure with each other, and [law enforcement is] out in the community and they see somebody, they’re going to remember, ‘Oh yeah, I remembered they don’t like to be touched, or looked in the eyes.’ I think it’s going to be something that’s just going to help them in the long run.’”

One major benefit to bringing Shawn in as the person to help pilot the program in Minnesota is the fact he’ll be joined by his brother Chris, who recently joined the police reserves in the Wyoming Police Department.

“For us, we’re essentially starting the two brothers at the same time. That’s another reason we looked at this and said this is a great opportunity,” Hoppe said. “We saw this is as a really great opportunity to have the other brother with us to teach us along the way, because the two brothers get along just famously.”

“Paul was very good about that. He said ‘I want to talk to Chris about this first,’” Leslie said with a little chuckle, knowing how close the brothers were. “He obviously didn’t know their relationship, yet.”

When it came time for city council approval, the vote passed unanimously.

Coach

Another component Shawn will do within the program is physical fitness and agility practice, which Shawn is well-prepared for. He not only regularly works out, but also played football, hockey, baseball and basketball in school, and he is most looking forward to the fitness aspect of the training.

Shawn will also have a job coach with him, but the cost of just the job coach is roughly $14,000, so the family has been fundraising and asking for donations.

“It is very expensive,” Leslie said. “That’s our biggest challenge right now is getting our funding for the job coach that will be attending the program with him, [partially] the safety aspect of it, in case they get a call and have to leave, that way it’s ensured that Shawn always has somebody for safety.

“I know Chief Hoppe is really thankful for having this opportunity and having the job coach involved because it takes a lot of that fear and responsibility off of them. And it’s just making it so that Shawn can learn alongside the law enforcement officers and he’ll be safe,” Leslie said.

“We are really excited about it,” Hoppe said. “It’s an amazing program.”

On July 24, Wyoming Police Department will welcome its newest member: recent White Bear Lake High School graduate Shawn Sieleni. Sieleni, who has Down syndrome, is joining the volunteer force of the Police Department through a new program called the Growth Through Opportunity Police Cadet program. The program is designed to pair people with intellectual or developmental disabilities with law enforcement, allowing the individual to learn and train within the department’s office as well as providing opportunities for the police staff to learn more about people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. According to the program’s website, “Founded in November 2014, the Growth Through Opportunity program is designed to provide adults of all ages with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, and other unique challenges an opportunity to gain valuable job skills and social experience.”New to MinnesotaThe program is the first of its kind in the state of Minnesota and is new to the national level, as well. Travis Akins, a 21-year veteran to law enforcement, developed the program in the state of Virginia, where it’s in use at 21 departments.It made its way to Minnesota via Shawn Sieleni’s mother, Leslie, who was trying to find a good fit where her son could work and learn. A work opportunity had come along for Shawn that had the structure he needed for work, but was not a good place for his personality.“I’m a social butterfly,” Shawn said. Shawn has been very active in the community, is beloved by especially the White Bear Lake Police and Fire departments, and would like to be a police officer. So Leslie began doing research, trying to find a good work opportunity for him, when she spotted information about the program in Virginia. “I came across it and I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is ideal,’ because that’s what his dream is, is to be in law enforcement. And I couldn’t find any programs in the state of Minnesota that he could actually participate in,” Leslie said.Roughly two years prior, Wyoming Police Chief Paul Hoppe had been approached by Wyoming Mayor Lisa Iverson about some sort of similar program.“Probably, the original idea was stimulated by our mayor, Lisa Iverson,” Hoppe said. “She asked me if we had any programs with the department that worked with people with disabilities, and at the time we didn’t.” It was something that sat in the back of his mind. Leslie, after finding this program, saw Hoppe at a fundraising event this spring and approached him about it. “I brought it up to him, and he was very excited about it,” Leslie said. “He wanted to do it right away.” “I looked at the program and said this is a mutual gain benefit and a win-win, as it helps us as law enforcement better prepare, and it helps with those with disabilities transition into adult life,” Hoppe said. Win-win“We’ve been working on this for probably five months and studying this program with the family who originally designed the program,” Hoppe said. “Then we reached out to the GTO program individual who designed it, who came up with the idea; we had conversations with him over several months about bringing it to our state.”Hoppe and Leslie came out with a plan for a 16-week program that not only helps the cadets learn skills about the trade itself, but to learn life skills. “He’ll learn how to fill out job applications, do job interviews, how to prepare and pack lunches for work, how to show up on time, and arrange for transportation … just different life skills, having just graduating from high school to actually being self-sufficient at work,” Hoppe said. Not only will it be beneficial for Shawn and possible future cadets, the program is also geared toward helping police learn how to handle situations with individuals who have developmental or intellectual disabilities. “For instance, Shawn doesn’t like it when you touch his head,” Leslie said. It’s something that no one would really recognize unless they’re trained to be aware of how to react, and in certain situations can easily escalate into a negative impact. “[The program] gives our officers an opportunity to build some experience working with intellectual or developmental disabilities. At the same time, it gives the people with IDD [an opportunity to work] with law enforcement officers and bridges the gap between law enforcement and individuals with disabilities and better preparing us to better work with those individuals in the field, should we come in contact with them there,” Hoppe said. “Hopefully through these learned experiences on both sides, we’re better at working with these individuals in the field.”“There’s sensory issues they’re not aware of,” Leslie said. “I think it’s going to be good, if they get this exposure with each other, and [law enforcement is] out in the community and they see somebody, they’re going to remember, ‘Oh yeah, I remembered they don’t like to be touched, or looked in the eyes.’ I think it’s going to be something that’s just going to help them in the long run.’”One major benefit to bringing Shawn in as the person to help pilot the program in Minnesota is the fact he’ll be joined by his brother Chris, who recently joined the police reserves in the Wyoming Police Department. “For us, we’re essentially starting the two brothers at the same time. That’s another reason we looked at this and said this is a great opportunity,” Hoppe said. “We saw this is as a really great opportunity to have the other brother with us to teach us along the way, because the two brothers get along just famously.”“Paul was very good about that. He said ‘I want to talk to Chris about this first,’” Leslie said with a little chuckle, knowing how close the brothers were. “He obviously didn’t know their relationship, yet.”When it came time for city council approval, the vote passed unanimously.CoachAnother component Shawn will do within the program is physical fitness and agility practice, which Shawn is well-prepared for. He not only regularly works out, but also played football, hockey, baseball and basketball in school, and he is most looking forward to the fitness aspect of the training.Shawn will also have a job coach with him, but the cost of just the job coach is roughly $14,000, so the family has been fundraising and asking for donations. “It is very expensive,” Leslie said. “That’s our biggest challenge right now is getting our funding for the job coach that will be attending the program with him, [partially] the safety aspect of it, in case they get a call and have to leave, that way it’s ensured that Shawn always has somebody for safety.“I know Chief Hoppe is really thankful for having this opportunity and having the job coach involved because it takes a lot of that fear and responsibility off of them. And it’s just making it so that Shawn can learn alongside the law enforcement officers and he’ll be safe,” Leslie said.“We are really excited about it,” Hoppe said. “It’s an amazing program.”To donate, visit gofundme.com/mn-gto-cadet-program.

Hannah Davis is the Area Editor at the Forest Lake Times. You can contact her at hannah.davis@ecm-inc.com or (763)233-0709

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