ORONO — The Orono Police Department is the second in the state to give young adults with disabilities the opportunity to serve on the force as junior cadets.

Alex Glasser, 20, and Pierce Pennaz, 18, were sworn in at the Orono City Council meeting on Monday, June 10. About 40 of their family members, friends and staff from Orono Public Schools were there to cheer them on.

“This is an incredible partnership and the second in the state of Minnesota,” Orono Public Schools Director of Special Services Kristine Flesher said during the City Council meeting, adding “We’re excited to watch their growth.”

The junior cadets are in the Orono Transition Program, which is designed to help 18-21 year olds with disabilities transition from high school to the real world by providing them opportunities where they can gain job and life skills.

The Transition Program teamed up with the Orono Police Department and the city of Orono to offer a program called Growth Through Opportunity, or GTO, which is designed for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities to gain skills and experience by volunteering with their local police department.

“It’s going to teach him some important work skills,” Karen Pennaz, Pierce Pennaz’s mom, told Lakeshore Weekly News after the ceremony. “He wants to live independently, and we continue to tell him that in order to do that, you have to work, you have to have a job, and you have to make some payments.

“This is an internship to practice work. And then in the fall, the Transition Program will find him paid work. So he has to learn to work first,” she added.

Not only does the program help the cadets, but it’s beneficial for the police department so officers can learn how to better interact with people who have disabilities, both visible and invisible.

“Our staff gets more experience working with people with different needs,” Orono Deputy Chief of Police Chris Fischer told the paper. “The more opportunities our officers get to spend with people with disabilities — it helps us to our job more effectively.”

The junior cadets will report for duty on Monday, June 17. They’re scheduled to work from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Thursday, for a total of eight weeks, Fischer said.

The details of the cadets’ official duties are still being worked out, Fischer said. The department will tailor the program to fit the cadets’ needs and work with their teachers to provide an opportunity for them to work on the skills they are looking to improve. Some of their duties could include maintenance, such as cleaning the department’s gym and squad cars; getting the mail; going out on calls to see how police interact with people; and getting outside and spending time in the community.

The GTO Program does require junior cadets to spend an hour a day in the police department’s gym. The health and wellbeing piece of the program is one of the things Karen Pennaz is “most excited about,” she said.

In addition to working with the police department, the cadets will spend time at City Hall and with the Orono Parks and Recreation Department, Fisher noted.

“They’re so excited [about the program]. They were just beyond thrilled when we told them,” Flesher said after the ceremony. “I can’t wait to watch them grow. I’ve been able to watch them since they were teeny, and so to be able to see this in a job employment, I mean I’m thrilled!”

Pierce Pennaz was excited for Monday’s swearing-in ceremony, with his parents, Karen and Steven Pennaz, saying he put on his uniform — a blue shirt adorned with his name and the Orono Police Department shield and khakis — right when he got up.

After the ceremony, the junior cadets and their throng of supporters gathered outside the City Council chambers to take photos. Alex Glasser told the paper she’s most excited to ride in a squad car, but she is not too keen on the fact she has to wear long pants every day when it is hot outside. However, Orono Chief of Police Correy Farniok assured her there will be air conditioning to keep her cool.

Pennie Glasser, Alex Glasser’s mom, said the GTO Program is “a great growth opportunity” for her daughter, noting it is her last year in the Orono Transition Program because she turns 21 in December. The program has already helped line up a paid job for her, but Pennie Glasser says being a junior cadet “might open more opportunities for her, too.”

Following the ceremony, Pierce Pennaz and his family and friends, as well as some Orono Public Schools staff, went out for ice cream at Ben and Jerry’s in Wayzata to celebrate. The cadet got a big bowl of chocolate ice cream.

Karen Pennaz said her son is “very proud” to be a junior cadet, adding “He loves a crowd” (he was Orono’s homecoming king and prom king during the 2018-19 school year), so Pierce will likely spend a lot of time out in the community meeting people — providing an opportunity for community members to learn more about people with disabilities, too.

“For what we’ve seen with kids and their growth, as we have provided them opportunities, they have far surpassed expectations,” Flesher said. “And every time we’ve included kids into a more inclusive environment, they have thrived.”

The district’s inclusion programs have made it possible for Transition students to get paid employment “at a rate that we’ve never had,” she added.

“That’s really exciting for us because that makes them successful adults, that they are out making a wage and earning a living and being successful,” Flesher said.

How it started

Leslie Sieleni, of White Bear Lake, helped bring the Growth Through Opportunity Program to Minnesota last year. Her son, Sean Sieleni, who graduated in November 2018, had wanted to be in law enforcement for four years, so Leslie Sieleni looked for something that would afford him that opportunity.

She discovered the GTO Program in Roanoke, Virginia, and told her son’s school about it. The school wasn’t able to fit it into its Transition Program, but Leslie Sieleni didn’t give up. She happened to be at a fundraiser and told Wyoming Chief of Police Paul Hoppe about it, and he “he jumped all over it,” Leslie Sieleni said.

The GTO Program launched at the Wyoming Police Department in June 2018, becoming the first police department in the state to have the program. Sean Sieleni, who works at Kowalski’s three days a week and will go to Bethel University this fall, is still a cadet with the police department one day a week.

“It’s a wonderful thing” to see the community rallying around her son, she said, adding it’s great to see people realize that people with disabilities “are just as capable as anybody else.”

Leslie Sieleni and Hoppe met with Orono’s Transition Program and the police department about GTO after Orono Public Schools heard about the program from a consultant it works with. It was a natural fit for the Orono Police Department, which was exploring how to work with the Orono Transition Program after Fischer met with some students during the winter.

Sidney Woods, a Transition student, interned with the Orono Police Department this spring as sort of a pilot project. It was a success, so the district pushed to launch the GTO Program this summer. Fischer said this time around it’s much more formal, with the junior cadets getting uniforms and having a swearing-in ceremony.

“I’m very proud of Orono for taking this on. I think it’s going to be fantastic for them,” Leslie Sieleni said.

She noted that a few other departments have reached out to her and Hoppe about launching the GTO Program, and her hope is that it goes statewide.

“There’s nothing negative about this program at all — it doesn’t jeopardize anybody. It doesn’t cost the police department any additional funds, so it’s just a win-win,” Leslie Sieleni said.

Melissa Turtinen is the multimedia reporter for Lakeshore Weekly News. She's passionate about adding context to stories and informing people about what's going on in their community. She enjoys being outside, traveling and good beer.

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