BUNCOMBE COUNTY, N.C. — March is Developmental Disability Awareness Month.

Law enforcement agencies and nonprofits in Asheville are partnering up to help those with developmental disabilities.

There's a program aimed at helping and educating those with these types of disabilities called "Growth Through Opportunity" or GTO.

"That's one of the best parts of it. You're working with people that have developmental disabilities, so you learn as much from them as they learn from you," says Sergeant Kelli Tinsley with the Buncombe County Sheriff's Office.

It's led by the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, with assistance from other first responder agencies and nonprofits like Arc of Buncombe County, who serves those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

"It’s the thing that a lot of people don't understand," says Arc of Buncombe Executive Director Linda McDaniel. "They have skill sets, sometimes beyond our skill sets.”

The program helps prepare those with unique challenges to enter the workforce, by teaching them what the expectations will be like. The goal is to set them up for success.

20-year-old John Kniffin of Weaverville has autism. He joined the program as a GTO cadet in March of last year, when the program first began.

"They've been talking to us about how the police department and the fire department do their stuff," Kniffin says. "I mean, they've been giving us tours, we've been working out in the gyms, even eating lunches there.”

Kniffin has even gotten himself a job at MOD Pizza, where he's learning how to make pizzas.

The cadets learn how to be a first responder — how to extinguish a fire, give first-aid, and give CPR. They learn self-defense skills, and experience bootcamp-style training. They're growing stronger physically and mentally.

McDaniel says they’ve wanted the national program to be brought here when they first heard about it a few years ago. The nonprofit has helped those with disabilities for more than 60 years.

Growth Through Opportunity was formed in Chesterfield County, Virginia by a sheriff’s deputy with a child who has developmental disabilities. He wanted his child to have the opportunities they deserved.

"We're always seeking opportunities to enhance the skills of people with disabilities and have them actively in the community," McDaniel says. "And people being aware that they have the same skills that everyone else does, and they need the same opportunities whether it's work, play, education.”

GTO has inspired Kniffin to want to become a leader.

"Until I graduate from the being a cadet, I hope I can like teach younger cadets how to become like one with the GTO program," Kniffin says.

The pandemic started around the same time the program did, so a lot of the work has been virtual. The program hopes to start meeting back in-person soon.

If you’d like to get involved in the program, reach out to the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office.